Despite its presence in our lives for well over a century, electricity remains a hazardous technology. It has become a critical component to modern living and commercial operations, but its fire risks still pose multiple dangers to life and property.
- According to the U.S. National Fire Protection Association, 22% of fires in industrial properties had a root cause in electrical distribution and lighting equipment between 2011 and 2015. These fires represented 55% of fire-damage costs in these properties.
- According to UK Firestatistics, 54.5% of UK fires had an electrical root cause during 2015/2016, with electrical distribution at the heart of 18.9% of those fires.
- FMGlobal estimates that every $1 million in industrial property damage related to electrical distribution fires can generate between $10 million and $100 million in business continuation impact.
- My colleague Matthieu Guillot has written of a number of power distribution-related fire risks in his blog post “Fight fire with technology: the connected approach to fire prevention.”
Of course, electrical equipment and designs have been improved over the decades to reduce fire risks – the NFPA reports that the total number of industrial and manufacturing structure fires dropped by 65% between 1980 and 2015. And annual office property structure fires dropped 71% between 1980 and 2011. But, still, more can be done to address the fire risks electrical systems pose to commercial and industrial facilities.
One of the newest advances in the fight to reduce fire risks is bringing internet of things (IoT) technology into commercial and industrial environments. Schneider Electric is pioneering with its growing range of sensors that can provide data and insights that enable facilities personnel to be aware of such conditions earlier and act before loss of property or lives occurs. By pairing a range of equipment sensors with cloud-based analytics, companies can even gain advance warning that on-the-ground conditions could be trending toward a dangerous situation.
Eventually, these technologies can benefit the insurance and testing, inspection, and certification (TIC) companies working with facility owners in their risk-management and loss-prevention roles. In fact, they could offer such service providers valuable new business opportunities that take advantage of our increasingly digitized world.
What Is the IIoT?
Over the last few years, manufacturers have been building connectivity into a broad range of consumer products. You might have some of these, yourself. Smart thermostats now allow homeowners to adjust room temperatures remotely, so homes are appropriately cooled or heated before you get home from a long trip. Smart light bulbs can be similarly dimmed or brightened remotely or controlled in groups to create separate lighting scenes for dinner parties or movie nights. And smart sensors can provide alerts when clothes in a dryer are actually dry, potentially saving energy that might have been used on overlong dryer cycles.
This expansion of internet connectivity from laptops and cellphones down to individual devices is called the “internet of things” or IoT. In addition to remote operation, the IoT is also creating data that consumers can use to better understand things like how and when they’re using energy. And, through cloud-based services that also incorporate electric-utility pricing information, the IoT can help optimize water heating and electric vehicle charging for lower monthly electricity bills. Such capabilities are expanding into commercial and manufacturing settings, as well, where they are creating an industrial internet of things – IIoT.
The IIoT has a broad range of applications within such facilities’ electrical distribution systems, among other areas. For example, panel-based sensors paired with visualization apps can give operators real-time access to a facility’s power characteristics, including such vital aspects as voltage, current and any existing harmonics. Managers also can monitor a distribution system’s environmental conditions, including heat and humidity – and now even the “smell” of smoldering insulation or an overheating loose connection. And combining data from these devices with cloud-based analytics enables new services that can alert operators to conditions that could signal the potential for fire or other dangerous events before they have a chance to occur.
As stated above, electrical fires pose significant danger to life and property for facility owners and managers. While a fire might seem to ignite in an instant, the factors leading up to that ignition might actually develop, unseen, over a period of time. Any number of conditions can create such events:
- Neglected maintenance of equipment like breakers and electrical cabinets can result in inoperable devices or in exposure to high humidity levels that can eventually lead to premature aging and malfunction.
- Neglected surveillance of electrical cabling and connections can result in short-circuits or electrical leaks due to mechanical or rodent-related damage
- Overdue replacement of aging mechanical equipment, such as motors and conveyors, can cause dangerous overheating.
- High current harmonics can create overheating of electrical distribution equipment, including busways and transformers, despite active energy levels remaining stable.
Installing today’s innovative and competitive power-monitoring and environmental sensors can give owners multiple sets of “eyes” into actual operating conditions. And with the right data-collection solutions and analytics, that data’s worth only increases. Monitoring, reporting and alarming features can alert facilities personnel to these trends, helping to prevent fires before they have a chance to start. Cloud-based analytics can compare those performance figures to baseline metrics to better understand potentially dangerous trends and anticipate preventive actions. Fires prevented means lives saved, equipment maintained and operations uninterrupted.
Opportunities for Insurers
The IIoT’s combination of data and analytics offers insurers’ customers the opportunity to reduce their risk. Today, insurers determine that risk using historical event data and yearly inspection site visits. During those visits, TIC personnel take thermography readings at critical points throughout the electrical distribution system to ensure equipment is operating within acceptable heat parameters. IIoT-connected power monitoring and environmental sensors add near-real-time insight into facility operations to those annual TIC inspections.
Alarming capabilities further reduce customer risk. Bringing together operating data regarding power, voltage, current and harmonics with environmental information on heat and humidity enables pre-alarm notifications. These can alert facilities staff to correct potentially dangerous conditions before disaster occurs.
Such risk-reduction strategies offer new opportunities for insurers to develop products tailored to customers’ actual risk – not just based on annually inspected assumptions.
Opportunities for TIC Providers
Today’s TIC business model consists of providing independent, third-party yearly visits to customer sites to collect thermography data points as they exist at the time of the visit. This approach has served customers – both facility owners and insurers – well over the years. And owners that have followed through on recommended improvements have seen reduced fire risk. However, the fact remains that these thermographic readings are isolated snapshots. They don’t provide any insight into how distribution systems might be performing in the time between these inspections.
With IIoT approaches, TIC providers now can supplement their annual inspections with insights enabled by the availability of continuous data. Combining these approaches will add security and confidence to annual certification services and provide insights into those system operations’ thermographic inspection campaigns can’t reach. Both facility owners and insurers will gain assurance that dangerous operating conditions can be observed, alarmed – and fixed faster– whenever they occur, throughout the year. You can read more about the advantages IIoT data can add to traditional thermography in the Schneider Electric white paper, “How thermal monitoring reduces risk of fire more effectively than IR thermography.” TIC companies could develop package solutions that combine these offerings by facilitating secure access to clients’ electrical distribution system data.
Bringing It All Together
IIoT approaches that bring together connected sensors – and the data they offer – with cloud-based analytics are giving owners and operators new ways to understand and manager their facilities’ operations. These advantages are especially important when it comes to electrical distribution systems. Now, facilities personnel can observe these systems’ operating characteristics and conditions in near-real-time. And they have an assurance that dangerous conditions can be identified and alarmed when they occur. As a result, owners can see a reduced risk of fire and insurers and TIC providers can gain new business opportunities thanks to the insights the added data can offer.