Are There Holes in Your Electrical Fire Prevention Strategy? Try A Connected Approach.

A centralized system for monitoring and proactive action improves the protection of electrical equipment and the circuits at all levels of a facility’s electrical installation.

By Alan Manche

Ensuring property and staff are protected from a fire event is always a top concern for facility managers. Building design, code compliance, rules, and procedures can help minimize the risk of a fire. However a lack of electrical system monitoring and maintenance due to the operational environment and aging of the system may mean your business is at risk in more than one way. Here’s a sobering statistic: half of all organizations that suffer a fire close within the next five years. Or take, for example, the fire at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport in 2017, which caused Delta Airlines to cancel 1,400 flights and suffer $50 million in losses.

The root cause of one out of 10 fires in non-residential buildings is electrical, according to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). The Hartsfield Airport fire? Caused by a switchgear failure. And for industrial buildings specifically, that number jumps to 30%.

electrical fire
Photo: Getty Images

Electrical fires can result from mistakes made during the installation process, and not all risks — including insulation-based fires and loose connections — are addressed by overcurrent protection. Consider that 14% of all electrical fires in buildings are caused by defective or worn insulation. Large building installations have extensive electrical networks, much that is protected by and contained in conduit reducing the vulnerability.

The maintenance of and adherence to current electrical safety standards is obviously critical to fire prevention. However, as buildings age and change throughout their life cycle, code compliance is often compromised. Fortunately, there’s another way to enhance protection beyond code compliance — one that is continually monitoring, analyzing, and then communicating priority actions. Advancements in digital technologies are making it easier to mitigate risks and even see into the future to prevent them entirely. This means additional protection for electrical equipment and the circuits at all levels of the electrical installation, underpinned by a centralized system for monitoring and proactive action.

Modernize, Connect Aging Electrical Infrastructure

If an electrical design follows installation requirements, including NEMA standards and national regulations, and uses compliant equipment, the electrical fire risks from over-current, overvoltage, and overheating of the electrical system should be minimized. However, electrical installations can deteriorate with time, often due to environmental factors, such as heat, corrosion, and humidity. Additionally, damage can occur when electrical systems are exposed to unique operating environments that may include vapors, chemicals, and oily environments as well as mechanical damage.

Modernizing electrical equipment such as switchgear and motor control centers may instantly conjure thoughts of demolishing an entire existing infrastructure, but maybe not. Rather than overhauling the entire electrical system with new equipment, it may be more beneficial to modernize or enhance the existing infrastructure. Pinpoint where your upgrade will bring you the most benefit such as technology enhancements for safety or potentially real-time monitoring and control that enables higher performance of your facility. These solutions are generally more cost-effective and less disruptive than buying entirely new equipment.

Preventing Arc Flash Incidents With New Digitized Equipment

Arc flash events — a hazardous explosion of energy from an electrical circuit – occur as often as five to 10 times per day in the United States, with many of these resulting in injuries and some being deadly.

Arc flash events are particularly hazardous to maintenance personal working on the electrical systems and can destroy electrical equipment that can take months to obtain and replace. New digital infrastructure provides the capability to greatly enhance the protection of not only the electrical system but also from personnel hazards.

The digital infrastructure can provide real-time status of the electrical system configuration to understand if the system has been placed in a mode to enhance protection for personnel by reducing the arc energy event if a mistake is made. The same digital platform may also provide enhanced capabilities that enable remote operation of the electrical equipment to completely remove personnel from the arc flash hazard area.

The best protection against arc flashes are digitally fortified electrical equipment that provide ultra-fast detection using a combination of current inputs and light via arc sensor channels. Should a fault occur, the device severs the current to reduce the arc energy released. This digital backbone not only helps protect people and the availability of the installation, it can also improve the reliability of power distribution protection.

Stay Ahead Of Risks

Sensors. As equipment ages, faulty electrical connections in MV and LV installations can increase contact resistance, accelerate deterioration, and eventually create thermal runaway, which can cause a fire, flashover, or explosion. Infrared (IR) thermography has traditionally been used to inspect the highest-risk areas and catch abnormal busbar temperature rises. However, as this is only done when scheduled (e.g. every 12 months) it can miss a connection point that might be deteriorating faster, that was not accessible at the time of inspection, or potentially the load has increased based on the needs of the facility. Continuous thermal monitoring technology offers a more comprehensive set of data and more cost-effective method for the early detection of faulty connections and dangerous temperature levels. Wireless thermal sensors are permanently installed on busbar connections, cable connections and other high-risk points. Temperature data is continuously collected and uploaded to an onsite or cloud-based power management system or power analytics platform with mobile alerts sent to operations and maintenance teams to help them respond before damage or fire occurs.

Predictive, Conditions-Based Maintenance. Not only do you want to be alarmed of risks, you want to stay ahead of their occurrences. Studies show that poorly maintained switchboards are 62% more likely to fail. The traditional preventive maintenance approach is typically implemented on a scheduled basis. A more efficient and effective strategy is to employ a conditions-based or predictive maintenance approach. Cloud analytics continually analyze equipment conditions, interpreting the status and history of your most critical assets in order to recommend maintenance and other preventive measures. Catching the risk conditions missed by scheduled checks can save facility management and electrical professionals significant time and money. Digital snalytics also reduces the risk of an unplanned outage by enhance power delivery reliability. In addition to predictive maintenance such as circuit breaker aging analysis and continuous monitoring for circuit and equipment overloading, managed services take the approach further, providing expert insight and prescriptive recommendations to facility management teams.

Digital Technology For Electrical Fire Prevention Strategies

No matter what type of facility, electrical fire prevention should remain a critical aspect of your risk assessment and a digital platform can inform and support analytics to reduce significant electrical fire risks. The key is to follow a connected approach that makes use of the latest electrical equipment innovations to enable continuous monitoring and data collection across all electrical infrastructure. Being able to not just identify, but proactively prevent electrical fire risks helps ensure human safety and business continuity — an objective that should always be first and foremost in the minds of facility executives.

electrical fireManche is the vice president of external affairs for Schneider Electric. He has been an employee of Schneider Electric for 27 years. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) as well as the NFPA Fire Protection Research Foundation Board of Trustees and is currently serving as Chair of the NFPA Electrical Section. Manche serves on NEC Code Making Panel (CMP) 10 and CMP-2, NEC Correlating Committee, NFPA 110 Technical Committee- Standard for Emergency and Standby Power Systems, NFPA 73 Technical Committee- Residential Electrical Maintenance Code for One- and Two-Family Dwellings, NFPA 70B Technical Committee- Standard for Electrical Equipment Maintenance, and formerly served as the chairman of NFPA 70B. Serving in a number of leadership positions within the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, he chairs the NEMA Code Adoption Initiative, chairs the NEMA Water and Fire Damaged Electrical Equipment Committee, chairs the Low Voltage Distribution Section, and serves on the NEMA Codes and Standards Committee.

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