Proactively protecting buildings from electrical fires and outages

Éirin Madden, Offer Marketing Manager at Schneider Electric Ireland, explains why taking an active approach to safety is key.

Crisis situations happen every day in buildings around the world. At the final distribution level – where electrical systems connect to plug outlets – risks continue to impact safety, resilience, and service continuity in all kinds of buildings. The most prominent risks being fires and downtime.

Fires can put lives at risk, especially in high-density buildings. They can also cause significant structural destruction, costly loss of contents, and force operations to shut down for long periods of time. The European Fire Academy (EFA) estimates 25% of building fires are electrical in origin. Equally, outages in critical environments, like hospitals, can put lives at risk. For facilities like data centres, every second of downtime matters – 24 hours of downtime can cost over €10.1 million.

What if facility personnel were able to identify risk before it caused an outage or a fire? Thankfully, emerging technology is making this possible.

Standard protection: good but not good enough

Evolving standards and regulations have driven the improvement of electrical protection technology in recent years – particularly to protect against arc faults, one of the most common potential sources of electrical fires.

In electrical systems, there can be problems with installation, maintenance, ageing, weakened or loose connections, accidental cable damage, or power sockets in poor condition – any of which can cause an arc to occur. If left unchecked, a vicious circle can occur causing more arcs that eventually lead to a fire.

To mitigate this risk, the arc fault detection device (AFDD) was developed, to detect arcs much smaller than a circuit breaker is capable of. The AFDD is now recognised worldwide, becoming part of many standards, IEC 62606 is around since 2013, and is now recommended as part of I.S.10101:2020 in Ireland. AFDDs should be installed on a building’s final circuits close to loads, especially in buildings with sleeping accommodations or that propagate fire easily, and in locations with stores of combustible materials or irreplaceable goods.

However, fully protecting buildings and people from risks is still increasingly challenging. Large buildings are complicated ecosystems with a higher number and variety of loads – increasing the chances of an electrical fault.

To protect, be proactive

The traditional approach will not suffice anymore. You can no longer wait for an overload fault to happen, because it will mean downtime, loss of revenue, and negative impact on operations and customers. And it may also mean a risk to the safety of people. While an AFDD can arrest the immediate risk of an arc fault, technicians need a faster and more effective way to respond to the problem.

Also, once a fault has occurred, it may take an unacceptable amount of time to fix. We now live in a world with unprecedented types of events, such as climate-related emergencies and pandemics. In these situations, technicians may not be available on site. Even if they are, they must diagnose the problem, then fix it. During this time, customer experience is affected, and revenues are being lost.

The answer to this is to take a more proactive approach – addressing risks before they cause problems. This requires more visibility into what is happening inside your electrical panels. You need to access all types of electrical health parameters in a more integrated way, anytime and anywhere, even when offsite. It’s now essential to be alerted if something could go wrong. This new level of visibility requires heightened connectivity.

Connectivity is not optional

We live in an increasingly connected world. Almost every part of a building’s infrastructure can now be connected, with powerful analytics that helps facility teams take a more ‘digitalised’ and proactive approach to HVAC, power, and energy management.

But when it comes to electrical safety, connectivity is still often treated as an option, with communication being implemented as ‘add-ons’ only when and where the need arises. This needs to change. The modern thought process should be connectivity by default.

This new level of connectivity needs to go beyond basic remote monitoring and alarming traditionally offered by some electrical equipment vendors. Sending an alarm only after a fault or outage has already occurred means that facility personnel are forced into a reactive mode, having to work fast to locate and correct the issue to get all circuits back online. Limited access and limited information can make that response even slower.

 Safety made smarter

The newest ‘active safety system’ technology integrates multiple smart protection devices with embedded, pre-emptive diagnostics. Built-in wireless connectivity enables simple integration with a complete active safety system solution, including a single wireless gateway per cabinet with a fast link to power monitoring software.

User-definable thresholds enable pre-alarming on risk conditions, sending an early warning by email or SMS to the mobile devices of all appropriate team members. Smart diagnostics generate actionable messages, informing technicians of the exact type of risk condition and the precise location of the circuit, allowing technicians to respond quickly, and bring power back as fast as possible.

Active safety systems will play an important role in buildings of the future. Rather than wait for regulators and standards to catch up, these new solutions should be considered as part of the specifications for greenfield, expansion, and retrofit projects now.