Mount Wilson sits 5,713 feet above Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains. The site is home to an impressive number of facilities, including astronomical research observatories, solar towers, and, of course, just about every major TV and radio broadcaster in Southern California.
With that many facilities in operation, there’s a considerable amount of power running up the mountain. The site’s remote location and high power requirements make it vulnerable to major disruptions due to incidents like fire. Ongoing exceptional drought and rising temperatures in the region mean the fire risk is nearly constant, particularly in the summer months.
Where there’s smoke…
As the world attempted to stay afloat during the pandemic of 2020, Southern California was experiencing added pressure as they navigated inland fires throughout late summer and early fall. One such event was the Bobcat Fire, which would eventually burn more than 115,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains. In early September, it was making its way toward Mount Wilson and its array of critical broadcasting equipment.
Despite the risks, maintaining consistent power to broadcast facilities is vital. Power outages lead not only to an interruption of the broadcaster’s message, but also loss of revenue and reputation. When the Bobcat Fire got to Mount Wilson, one major broadcaster began to experience troubling outages. The intense heat, coupled with the encroaching flames, was making utility power unstable.
When only the best will do
One broadcaster’s facility on Mount Wilson uses ABB automatic transfer switches (ATS), the benchmark for quality and dependability in the realm of backup power systems. However, under the intense conditions of a major wildfire, even the best equipment can need extra maintenance to continue working well. The broadcaster needed to keep the power on despite mother nature’s tricks, and they needed the only ABB independent ATS authorized service provider in Southern California. They needed EPC Electric.
For nearly forty years, EPC has kept power flowing to facilities like high rises, medical facilities, data centers, and military bases, among many others. The broadcaster knew that EPC was skilled working in dangerous and difficult situations. A mountain engulfed in 200-foot flames was right up our alley.
Entering a war zone
The broadcaster called Pat Carolan, EPC Electric’s founder and president. “Getting me up there was going to be a problem,” Pat said. “They considered a helicopter, but there was just too much smoke.”
They would have to take the long road up. Flanked by a battalion of fire crews heading into the action, Pat made his way up the treacherous mountain, past checkpoints that guarded the increasingly dangerous roads.
Pat was shocked by the scene at the top. “The firefighters looked like they’d been in a war,” he said. “They were exhausted, sleeping on the asphalt.”
With the flames visible just a few hundred yards away, Pat entered the transmitter station. He checked the ATS, which Pat calls the brains of a backup power supply system. “Utility power was bouncing in and out,” he said.
An automatic transfer switch constantly monitors utility power and flows the power to the critical load in a facility. If the voltage drops below its capability, the ATS will switch to backup power. But the flames and heat of the fire caused utility power to pass through inconsistently, which prohibited the generator from functioning optimally.
The waiting game
Pat would have to be patient and wait for conditions to improve. He locked the generator on as the only power supply.
“I stayed up there for eight hours,” Pat said. “I waited for the fire to move away, then watched as the utility power slowly stabilized.”
EPC still maintains a relationship with the broadcaster and regularly sends workers to the top of Mount Wilson for scheduled preventative maintenance. The broadcaster was beyond impressed with EPC’s commitment to safety and their ability to work under adverse circumstances.
“The skill and knowledge of EPC Electric’s entire staff is unmatched in this industry,” said the broadcaster’s facility manager. “We know that when we call EPC, we’ll not only get the job done right, but it will be done with safety as the number one priority.”