Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Children may use that excuse when fearing “the monster under the bed”. As a loss control consultant, I use that excuse when discussing the vulnerabilities of an electrical system. Luckily, there is technology for this to help us see these so called “monsters under the bed,” infrared thermography.
The US Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) indicates that 13% of fires in non-residential buildings are electrical or lighting related in origin. It is the number three cause, following the categories of cooking and intentional. This number is likely underestimated, as all fires are not reported, and a large percentage of fires that are reported fall into an unknown category.
Electrical fires can occur in many ways:
- Older wiring can be a factor, as appliances or equipment may create a larger draw than the original capacity of the wiring
- Wiring coverings could be worn by age, position or vermin
- Non-standard repairs or expansions may contribute
- Corrosion may interfere with the proper function of wires
- Inappropriate extension cord use
- Damaged cords (Duct tape does not, in fact, fix everything)
- Equipment or appliance failure
- Problems with a breaker, disallowing tripping
- Lightning strike can travel through a building’s electrical system, creating excessive temperatures
So, how can you prevent an electrical fire? If you can’t see the problems, how do you know there is the potential? Given the statistics and causes of electrical fires, you should assess the vulnerabilities in your own building.
- How old is your system?
- Have you made upgrades to accommodate advances in your equipment and load?
- Are your repairs and upgrades made by a licensed electrician, or are they done by someone you just consider handy?
- Do you monitor the conditions of components you can see, such as the interior of your panel boxes and cords?
Once the obvious is considered, it may be appropriate to turn to infrared thermography and “look through walls”. Infrared thermography has matured and become more commonplace over the past several decades. The technology can read temperatures and create an image representing the different variations. In the fire prevention application, a trained technician or electrician can use it to identify hot spots in an electrical system, which may indicate potential overload or impending failure. To provide thermal imaging examinations, those involved must be dressed in arc-flash protective clothing compliant with NFPA 72E and be competent in working with live panels.
The trained parties will remove panel covers and examine wiring using the thermal imaging device, which is usually a camera. Areas which may be suspiciously hotter than others will be investigated to find the source of the excessive heat signature. Sometimes it is a problem, other times it is not. In fact, in lower voltage panels, I have learned to suspect a coffee maker early on in the investigation. However, I have also seen numerous situations where faulty wiring or dangerous overloading was identified and has likely prevented a disaster. In addition to protecting property, using such technology can help protect lives.
As the technology becomes more commonplace, the size and cost of thermal imaging devices has become more affordable. I was once trained to perform this type of exam and I can still almost feel the weighty camera with twenty pound battery belt. Now a basic unit can be purchased for under $1,000 and is hand-held. I only recommend ownership of a device to companies who are trained in arc-flash prevention, electrical safety and would perform this service only with a licensed electrician. If this is not appropriate for your facility, the services of a licensed electrician who can perform this service may be very valuable to your company. Given the devastating nature of a fire and its impact on your business, use of the technology may very well be a wise investment.
I urge you to consider your own risks to electrical fires, and if infrared thermography is a technology that can improve fire safety and business continuity for your enterprise. Are there any monsters of the electrical kind lurking in your facility? Let’s face it – a fire is a nightmare everyone wishes to avoid.
Acadia is pleased to share this material with its customers. Please note, however, that nothing in this document should be construed as legal advice or the provision of professional consulting services. This material is for general informational purposes only, and while reasonable care has been utilized in compiling this information, no warranty or representation is made as to accuracy or completeness. Distribution of this information does not constitute an assumption by us of your obligations to provide a safe workplace. Maintaining a safe workplace in accordance with all laws is your responsibility. We make no representation or warranty that our activities or recommendations will place you in compliance with law, relieve you of potential liability or ensure your premises or operations are safe. We exercise no control over your premises or operations and have no responsibility or authority to implement loss prevention practices or procedures.