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Active Safety: a proactive approach to better protecting buildings from electrical fires and outages

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Active Safety: a proactive approach to better protecting buildings from electrical fires and outages

Do you own or operate one or more large or critical buildings? Do you believe your electrical system is as safe and reliable as it can be? Imagine this situation:


It is 10 pm at a large hospital and everything is running smoothly. The patient admission unit is especially busy, with many of the patients depending on various medical equipment. A new patient is brought in and a nurse plugs in another heart monitor machine. But nothing happens. At the same time, two other nurses notice that other machines in the room have just shut off. They immediately realize a breaker has tripped, taking down power for an entire ICU circuit. This is now a critical situation.


A call is quickly made to the electrical maintenance department. A junior technician answers and says the problem will be addressed immediately. The technician uses his mobile phone to call his boss, but the manager is offsite and must give the technician instructions over the phone. The technician spends the next many precious minutes locating the correct electrical panel for the ICU, identifying which breaker tripped, and resetting it to restore power. But what will happen if the nurse tries plugging in the additional ventilator again?


While this was not a true story, this type of risk happens every day in buildings around the world. In fact, at the final distribution level – where your electrical system connects to plug outlets – risks continue to impact safety, resilience, and service continuity in all kinds of buildings. What kind of risks and impacts are we talking about?


  1. Fire – Fires in buildings can put many lives at risk, especially in high-density buildings. They can also cause significant structural destruction, costly loss of contents (e.g. in museums), and force commercial and public operations to shut down for long periods of time. The European Fire Academy (EFA) estimates 25% of building fires are electrical in origin. According to the German Insurance Association, 31.7% of fires in Germany are caused by electricity, and recent statistics from the UK government show that 18% of accidental electrical fires in England were caused by problems in wiring, cabling or plugs. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reports that approximately 10% of fires in non-residential buildings in the U.S. are directly caused by electricity.


  1. Downtime – A loss of power in a hospital can put the lives of patients at risk. For facilities like data centers, every second of downtime can have massive business impacts (24 hours of downtime can cost over £8.7 million). Even retail businesses can take a heavy toll due to an outage, like the supermarket in Pennsylvania that suffered losses of up to £22,000 in merchandise. And there are other types of operational impacts, such as the 2018 outage at Stanford University that covered a full third of the campus and forced classes to be cancelled and lab research to be halted.


What if these kinds of risks could be avoided? What if facility personnel were able to identify a risk before it can cause an outage or a fire? Thankfully, emerging technology is making this possible.


Standard protection: good but not good enough

Due to evolving standards and regulations, electrical protection technology has continued to improve in recent years. At the final distribution level, four important, and separate, protection devices are now either required or recommended.


  1. A circuit breaker that provides overcurrent and short circuit protection, which is mandated by standards worldwide.
  2. Earth leakage (residual current) protection is also a requirement in most applications.
  3. Surge protection against overvoltage conditions is common in most applications.
  4. Protection against arc faults.


Arc faults are one of the most common potential sources of electrical fires. So, what is an arc fault? In electrical systems there can be problems with installation, maintenance, aging, improper use of appliances, or exposure to the environment, there can be weakened or loose connections, accidental cable damage, or power sockets in poor condition. Each of these issues can cause an arc to occur, which is a fast discharge of electricity across two parts of the same conductor. If left unchecked, a vicious circle can occur causing more arcs that eventually lead to a fire, which can quickly spread to other flammable materials.


To protect against this broad range of arc fault risks, the arc fault detection device (AFDD) was developed. An AFDD detects an arc much smaller than a circuit breaker is capable of, opening the circuit to help prevent it from causing a fire. First used in the U.S., the AFDD (also known as an AFCI) is now recognized worldwide, becoming part of many standards, including IEC 62606 since 2013, the UL1699 standard in the US, the Canadian Electrical Code, soon under BS 7671 in the UK, and strongly recommended by national standards in France, Germany, Spain, and Australia. 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, even with these four protections in place, the challenge to fully protect buildings and people from risks is now made greater. Large buildings are an increasingly complicated ecosystem with more loads and more kinds of loads. This means the chances of an electrical fault have increased.


To be better protected you must now be proactive

With higher risks and higher stakes, your facility teams must change the way they think and work. The traditional approach does not work well enough anymore. You can no longer wait for an overload fault to happen, because it will mean downtime, loss of revenue, and negative impact on your organization and its customers. And it may mean there was also a risk to the safety of people. And 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 to reduce downtime or avoid a full-fledged fire.


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 able available on site. Even if technicians are on site, they must diagnose the problem, then fix it. During this time, customer experience is affected and revenues are being lost.


The answer to this challenge is to take a more proactive approach. You need to address risks before they can 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 everywhere, even when you are offsite. And you need to be alerted if something could go wrong. This new level of visibility requires a new level of connectivity.


Connectivity is not an option anymore

We all now live in a connected world. Many of us now wear or carry personal devices like fitness trackers, smart watches, and other mobile technologies that help us proactively manage our health and plan our activities. Homes are now smart homes, where we talk to personal digital assistants that help us manage our security, entertainment, and energy use.


Buildings are making the transition to smart buildings. Almost every part of a building’s infrastructure can now be connected, with powerful analytics that help facility teams take a more ‘digitalized’ 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. The way we think of safety and the protection inside electrical panel boards needs to change. You need to start thinking 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 is made smarter

Emerging ‘active safety system’ technology is giving facility operations and maintenance personnel the visibility they need to take a proactive approach in monitoring and maintaining the safety and resilience of their electrical systems.


The newest solutions integrate 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 text messages 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. For example,


Attention! Earth leakage current at 80% of limit in 1st floor of Building A. Power disruption risk if more devices added.”


With this insight in hand, technicians can respond quickly to fix the problem, helping bring the power back as fast as possible.


Safety is made simpler

No matter how smart a solution is, it needs to be simple and fast to install and scale up as needed. Having to add multiple accessories increases installation time and adds to cost and space, which are not unlimited.


Fortunately, the newest active safety system technology is a highly integrated all-in-one solution. A single, compact 36 mm module combines up to seven capabilities:


  1. Miniature circuit breaker (MCB) for short circuit and overcurrent protection
  2. MSU for over-voltage protection
  3. Residual current device (RCD) for earth leakage detection
  4. Arc-fault detection device (AFDD) to help avoid the risk of fire
  5. Power and energy monitoring to help optimize operations and energy use
  6. Pre-alarming, alarming, and diagnostics
  7. Wireless communication


Finally, there is no longer a need for separate devices or add-ons. This not only simplifies inventory, it saves on panel space, and makes a full range of protection simpler to install and maintain, with reduced wiring and configuration requirements. This saves contractors and panel builders time and money.


Active safety systems will greatly enhance safety for all kinds of buildings and organizations. This proactive approach will play an important role in buildings of the future. Rather than wait for regulators and standards to catch up, you should begin considering these new solutions as part of the specifications for your greenfield, expansion, and retrofit projects.


For more information, discover the Schneider Electric’s all-in-one Active Safety System.