By Derek Vigstol
How prepared is your building for the next natural disaster? If the next major hurricane was pointed directly at your area, would you be ready? Or if a wildfire was set to engulf your town, how well are you set up to minimize the effect? While we can’t hold back Mother Nature there are a few things that we can do to ensure the least amount of down time and a speedy recovery.
When it comes to a building’s electrical system, preparing for a natural disaster is more about the prep work leading up to the event. NFPA 70B: Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance contains an entire chapter dedicated solely to disaster recovery efforts. Chapter 32 is all about how a facility can prepare, plan, and respond to a disaster that affects the electrical system in a building. Start with having a plan. Disasters are an unfortunate reality and whether they are natural or man-made, having a plan in place for how to respond is critical for business continuity. This can start with designating personnel that will be responsible for certain tasks during the recovery period. It could also mean that you need to have arrangements in place with outside vendors to help lessen the panic and confusion that comes after the event. Additionally, having such a master service agreement (MSA) in place prior to a large-scale disaster can help ensure that you get on the list right away and don’t have to wait for availability.
A site-specific disaster recovery safety plan will also lay out exactly what procedures to follow during recovery efforts as the hazards during adverse events certainly are different than during the normal operation of a facility. Procedures might include things like special processes for lockout/tagout, testing normally non-current carrying conductive surfaces before you touch them (as a damaged electrical system can present unique hazards), or determining what special types of PPE might need to be on hand prior to commencing any recovery efforts.
Part of the plan might also be to secure the facility the best you can prior to the event taking place. Of course, this is only possible if the disaster is the type that comes with a warning. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and acts of terrorism or vandalism tend to hit without warning, so securing the facility might not be possible in all scenarios. However, when advanced warning measures are in place you can prepare a facility by de-energizing the facility to prevent short-circuit and arc-fault damage. Also, if possible, move critical equipment that might be exposed to flood waters to higher ground to avoid water damage. Inventory examples include computers, sensitive electronics, and even drawings and paperwork that will be critical in the recovery effort. As a service electrician, I cannot tell you how many times a well-maintained set of one-line drawings helped to speed things up. To lose those in a flood that you knew was coming is something that never should happen. Remember, the personnel that will be helping in the recovery efforts generally bill by the hour so it would be wise to prepare ahead and do everything you can to help workers get you back online as quickly as possible.
Speaking of speeding up the recovery process, have you ever tried to purchase a generator the day after a big storm hits? Well guess what, rebuilding is going to take electricity and if your system is damaged, well then, I wouldn’t count on using it to even charge cordless tool batteries. Planning to have temporary emergency power can mean the difference of months in the recovery process. In addition to the outside vendors you might have already lined up with an MSA, you should know who, what, and where you are going to get your temporary power from before disaster strikes. If you wait until the day after a storm hits, you may be looking at a months-long waiting game. And if your profits depend on a functioning facility, overlooking temporary power contingencies could be a huge mistake. Think about it — having a generator brought in from eight states away will certainly cost you thousands more than making a phone call today.
Lastly, take stock of what you have in the building. Go through everything and ask yourself, “can this equipment be repaired or will it need to be replaced?” The 2020 edition of the National Electrical Code® now gives some guidance on what type of equipment is permitted to be reconditioned and what can’t. There is a great publication by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), too, titled “Evaluating Water Damaged Electrical Equipment”; if all else fails, call the manufacturer. Draw a detailed layout of what you have throughout the facility and know where to find it and how it will go back in. This will help you with your disaster planning efforts.
Remember, none of us can say with 100% certainty when, what, and where disaster might strike our buildings, but if you follow the recommendations within NFPA 70B and follow the steps listed on the new NFPA 70B checklist, you might just have a fighting chance at getting back online faster, more cost efficiently, and with fewer headaches than if you are caught off guard. NFPA is here to provide information and knowledge. We have many resources to help guide you in readying your facility for the worst. Even when we don’t have all the answers, we might just know who does.
Vigstol is the senior electrical content specialist for National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). He is a master electrician by trade and has served many years in the electrical construction and service industry. He now serves NFPA as the main technical subject matter expert for all things electrical installation, maintenance, and workplace safety-related.
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