Emergency Backup Generators & Environmental Permits

Written By: Matt Hill | Oct 14, 2021

Time to Read 14 Minutes

We discuss what emergency generators may require - from SPCC Plans to Air Permits, to EPCRA Reporting, and other environmental regulatory considerations.

Emergency backup generators are everywhere nowadays – hospitals, schools, shopping malls, office buildings, data centers, hotels, government offices, and other various types of commercial buildings and industrial facilities. They've become so commonplace that we often get asked the question - does my emergency generator require any sort of environmental permit, plan, registration, or other environmental regulatory requirements?

Like anything else, the answer as to whether your emergency generator falls under any type of environmental regulation depends on a multitude of factors, from size, capacity, operation, fuel source, and facility location, to name a few. Most often, though, the answer is yes, your emergency generator does fall under some form of environmental regulation that requires you to obtain a permit, maintain a plan, file a registration, report to regulatory agencies, etc. These regulations can be required by your state, county, region, or even city. It's important to know exactly what your emergency generator needs to avoid regulatory action, fines, or in extreme cases, being forced to suspend operations or civil enforcement. Unfortunately, environmental regulations are often overly wordy and technical, making it difficult to figure out what applies to you. Add in the issues of having to navigate local, regional, state, and/or Federal regulations, understanding your requirements can be challenging.

If this sounds familiar and you're feeling unsure about what sorts of environmental regulations apply to your emergency generators, don't worry! We're about to break down the most common areas of environmental regulations that you'll need to know about regarding emergency generators at any type of industrial operation or commercial building.

What qualifies as an emergency generator?

To start out - let's quickly go over what emergency generators actually are.

An emergency generator is typically defined (in environmental regulations) as a stationary reciprocating internal combustion engine that is used to provide emergency power due to loss of utility supply. For places like shopping malls, office buildings, hospitals, data centers, hotels, police stations, apartment buildings, and other commercial buildings, these generators may be critical for systems that impact safety, systems, and communication. For industrial operations, this could mean keeping equipment and processes running (meaning you keep making money!) Either way, an emergency generator is there for just that - an emergency situation.

Okay, that got a little technical. Stationary reciprocating internal combustion engine? What does that even mean? Maybe you're starting to ask yourself - do I even have an emergency generator? To put it simply: if the lights, phones, and/or internet still work when the power goes out in your area, it's safe to assume that you do have an emergency generator of some type!

What environmental regulations apply to emergency generators?

As we mentioned earlier, environmental regulations can change based on your state, county, region, or even city. Additionally, they'll depend on your particular operation, generator(s), fuel type, etc.

With that being said, not every type of industrial facility or commercial building will need to worry about every regulation we cover here.

And by that same token, there may be certain places or circumstances that require you to follow additional regulations that we don't cover here.

The point being, this is a guide, and should not be used as the end-all-be-all source of information when it comes to environmental regulations and emergency generators. If you need help figuring out the particular environmental regulations that apply to the backup generators at your facility, your best bet is to either dig into the regulations on your own or reach out to an expert for professional assistance.

Having said all that, here are the four most common areas of environmental regulations that we see applying to emergency generators are at all types of facilities:

  • Air Quality Permits
  • Aboveground Storage Tank (AST) Registrations
  • SPCC Plans
  • EPCRA Tier II Reporting

Assuming you're not an environmental regulatory expert, that might not be helpful information. Let's take a closer look at each one of those bullets to explain what they mean.

Emergency Generators & Environmental Regulations

Emergency Backup Generators & Air Quality Permits

Typically, environmental compliance for emergency generators is required by the state in which your generator operates. This is generally your state's environmental department, but in some cases, counties, regions, or cities will have their own environmental compliance procedures in place which may supersede state requirements. Conversely, while you may be exempt from having a permit per your state and/or local government's regulations, all emergency generators are required to follow Federal regulations as laid out in the Clean Air Act.

Let's cover a few key points here:

Pre & Post Construction Air Permits

In many instances, air permitting needs to be considered even before you begin constructing or installing it. It's common to find a permit, which may sound something like a Pre-Construction permit, that applies to the installation and start-up of your emergency backup generator.

Conversely, there are air permits that are specifically tailored for equipment once it's started and running, which may sound something like an Operating Permit.

Since everywhere handles air quality permitting differently, this is going to be dependent on where you're property/facility/building is located.

Emission Restrictions

Your emergency generator could be subject to air emission regulations as required by your state, county, or city. This could mean annual or semiannual reporting of emissions such as NOx, SOx, CO2, or other air pollutants. These emissions can differ based on your emergency generator's size, the type of fuel burned, and the amount of time the generator is run, which leads us into...

Emergency Backup Generator Run Times

Regardless of state regulations, per federal law, your emergency generator is required to stay under 100 hours of run time per calendar year for non-emergency use (maintenance or testing). Also be aware that other agencies at the state, regional, or local level may have stricter regulations, meaning you may be severely limited in terms of how often you can test and maintain your backup generator. So, make every minute count!

Conversely, when it comes to running for emergency reasons, such as when the power's out, you are generally held to a much higher run-time limit. This limit, while often expressed in hours, is usually in the days to weeks range in terms of how long your generator can run in an emergency.

Other Air Quality Permitting Considerations

Here are four other key compliance areas we commonly see with emergency generators.

  • You must comply with the manufacturer's emissions-related maintenance guidelines for preventative maintenance on your emergency generator.
  • You may be required to only fuel your emergency generator with low emissions fuel and may be asked to provide proof of record of said fueling.
  • Depending on location, some areas may require you to install your emergency generator with Best Available Control Technologies (BACT) which could mean the installation of particulate filters or scrubbers.
  • If your generator was constructed before June 2006, it may be held to further requirements.

Diesel Fuel vs Natural Gas Fired Generators & Air Permits

It is worth mentioning quickly that when it comes to natural gas-fired emergency generators, they tend to burn more efficiently & cleaner as compared to diesel-fired generators. Natural gas is considered "cleaner" when it comes to NOx and SOx emissions, and since NOx emissions play a very large factor in air permitting thresholds, how your emergency generators are fueled can greatly impact your air permitting requirements.

Final Word on Air Permits & Emergency Generators

As you can see, air permitting is a pretty big concern when it comes to emergency backup generators. There are a lot of regulatory considerations which are highly dependent on a number of factors, making this one of the trickier issues to deal with.

Regardless, to summarize everything we just stated, if you have an emergency backup generator, or are thinking of installing a generator, then you need to consider air quality permitting requirements. Air permits may come from local, county, regional, or state agencies. Even if there are no state, regional, or local air permitting considerations, you must still adhere to Federal regulations.

Here are some additional articles on air permits that may be helpful:

Generator Fuel Sources & Regulatory Considerations

We just touched on the concept that fuel sources for emergency generators can impact air regulations. Does the fuel impact other areas of regulatory concern? Absolutely.

How you fuel your generators has a pretty significant impact on the following considerations. Just like how a small generator used to power a residential home can be run on gasoline, propane, or natural gas, a generator at an industrial or commercial facility can be fueled via various sources (which tend to be either diesel or natural gas in most instances).

The next three areas of environmental regulatory concern do tend to only apply to emergency generators that are fueled with diesel, but it can all depend. Again, when in doubt, if you're capable of doing so, dig into regulations, otherwise talk to an expert.

AST/UST Registrations for Backup Generator Fuel Tanks

In order for an emergency generator to run, it needs fuel, and when it comes to fuel sources, most backup generators are fueled with either diesel or natural gas. If it's fueled with natural gas, it's likely fueled via piping connected to a natural gas source (i.e., a local utility provider). If it's fueled by diesel, then that diesel will need to be stored in a tank. This can mean a standalone tank off by itself with piping to the emergency generator, or it could mean an integrated belly tank that the generator sits on top of.

In some locations, regulations may require the registration of fuel tanks for emergency planning purposes and for the prevention and control of fuel leaks. Registration can include requirements for spill prevention planning, spill response, tank design, tank inspections, release detection, and secondary containment standards.

When it comes to registrations, there does tend to be a difference in terms of registrations and/or operating requirements. Generally, ASTs (aboveground storage tanks) are easier to register and have fewer requirements, whereas USTs (underground storage tanks) are more difficult to register and have additional requirements to deal with.

Emergency Generator Fuel Tanks & SPCC Plans

If you have either an AST or UST at your industrial or commercial facility, you may fall under SPCC regulations.

SPCC (short for Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure) Plans are required for any facility in the United States which meets certain criteria, which more or less are:

  • Non-Transportation Based Facility
  • Produce, Store, Process, Transfer, Distribute, Use, or Consume Oil (in addition to a few other considerations)
  • Have over 1,320-gallons aboveground or 42,000-gallons belowground in storage capacity

There are additional criteria and considerations, but if those three bullets apply to you, chances are very likely you'll need an SPCC Plan. SPCC Plans are administered by the Federal government, meaning everyone across the United States falls under this regulation.

If you have a single, small generator, this may not be a thing to worry about. Conversely, if you have a single, large generator, or even a few small backup generators, then you can very quickly & easily enter the realm of SPCC regulatory considerations. Since we deal with SPCC Plans on a very frequent basis, we've covered a number of topics in some of the following helpful articles:

EPCRA Community Right-to-Know Reporting for Generator Fuel Storage

Your emergency generator's fuel source, whether it be an AST or a UST, may trigger the need for reporting these hazardous substances, assuming they are stored above certain thresholds. This is commonly referred to as Tier II Community Right-to-Know Reporting but is also commonly called EPCRA Reporting, Tier II Reporting, Community Right-to-Know Reporting, a combination thereof, or something similar, such as Hazardous Materials Business Plans in California.

Annual Tier II Reporting is due on March 1st each year and is required to be submitted to various regulatory agencies, usually your state, local fire department, and/or local emergency planning council. This report details the location and quantity of the hazardous substances at your site, in order to better inform the community and first responders in the event of an emergency.

Reporting thresholds can vary, but if you have a storage tank with diesel in it, it's vital that you dig into your reporting requirements, not only to stay in compliance and out of trouble but to protect your local community and first responders from dealing with an unexpected hazard.

Here are some additional Community Right-to-Know Reporting articles which may be helpful:

Emergency Backup Generators & Environmental Regulations

What happens if I ignore environmental regulations impacting my emergency backup generator?

We hear this line fairly frequently, to which we respond: what happens if you cheat on your taxes? Maybe nothing! Maybe you get audited and are found to be ok. Maybe you get thrown in Federal prison! It all depends!

The same applies to skipping out on your environmental regulatory obligations. If environmental regulations apply to your facility, by ignoring those regulations, you are breaking the law. Plain and simple. If you have an emergency generator that needs an Air Permit, SPCC Plan and requires you to conduct Community Right-to-Know Reporting, then you need to do these things.

If an inspector shows up at your facility and you're out of compliance, anything can happen. They could politely ask that you obtain the correct plans, permits, approvals, etc., with no punishment. They could issue you a violation and require you to get into compliance within a short timeframe. It's possible they could force you to stop operating, or in extreme cases, arrest you and anyone breaking the applicable law. It all depends.

Maybe you’re thinking: isn’t it going to be more expensive to pay for these permits, plans, etc. than it would be to just pay the fine for not having them if I ever do get caught? The answer is no, it's not. We can tell you from years of experience, it's cheaper to get into compliance now than it is to be forced to get into compliance down the road.

Most of these regulations – even if they’ve been delegated to states – originate at the Federal level. Being found in violation of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, or other Federal regulation is a very serious matter. Many monetary fines for non-compliance can quickly get into the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars range, since they can be calculated per offense, per day! Not cheap, and not a good look.

And, it’s not just fines you need to worry about. Knowingly ignoring the requirements for your emergency generators can lead to the temporary or permanent closure of your business, and, in extreme cases, even jail time!

Need more help on environmental regulations impacting emergency backup generators?

If you’re responsible for a commercial operation, public building, residential building, or industrial facility, and are trying to figure out whether or not you need any environmental plans, permits, registrations, or approvals for your emergency generators, this might be a lot to take in. If you're overwhelmed, you're not alone. Here at RMA, we have actively been involved in helping businesses, organizations, and commercial building operators apply for and obtain plans, permits, registrations, and approvals since our founding in 1992. Long story short, we know the ins and outs of the environmental regulatory concerns that a variety of buildings and facilities face. We can help you get into compliance, ensuring your business stays out of trouble and in compliance.

Our staff members have been on-site at thousands of commercial and industrial operations across the country, so when we say we've seen it all and done it all, we truly mean it. No matter your size, industry, or location, we'd love to learn how we can help with your environmental needs.

If you're having any type of issue at your operation with your environmental program, need to obtain a permit, plan, registration, approval, or anything else, and need the help of an environmental consulting firm with a proven track record, reach out. Even if we can't help, we’ll do our best to steer you in the right direction. Feel free to contact us at info@rmagreen.com, click here to contact us, or give us a call anytime at 888-RMA-0230 to learn how we can help your operation deal with environmental regulations.

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