Most of electrical fires could be avoided by paying more attention to the company’s electrical appliances and installations: by planning and installing them in an appropriate manner, and by maintaining them well according to a carefully prepared maintenance programme.
A fire broke out in the electrical switchgear room of a building on Sunday morning. The automatic fire detector transmitted the alarm signal directly to the fire department, which arrived in a few minutes. The detector was non-addressable. As the fire brigade arrived, there were no signs of fire outside the building. The fire brigade managed to find the source of the fire quickly and extinguished the fire with carbon dioxide extinguishers. However, the fire had spread through the cable tunnel to a storage space on a lower floor. Luckily, the space was equipped with sprinklers, one of which was enough to extinguish the fire.
Nevertheless, the material damage was considerable. The main distribution board of the building was severely damaged, and the service facilities in the space next to it, including the equipment and the expensive appliances taken in to be serviced and kept there at the time, suffered from considerable smoke and soot damage.
The electrical installations were ten years old, and the latest thermographic survey had been performed as long as four years prior to the date of the loss event. It was later determined that the cause of the fire was a short circuit.
Electrical fires can be prevented
Electrical fires occur all the time, but this does not have to be the case. We can work systematically to prevent them. Electrical safety begins with the safe performance of electrical installation work: installations should be performed only by authorised persons and companies, and installations that have been made should be inspected according to the regulations. Electrical appliances and installations must be used and serviced properly. Servicing is usually the responsibility of the company’s maintenance organisation. In addition to their internal organisations, most companies use the services of external expert organisations in electrical work.
An advanced maintenance programme includes the necessary, regular service and inspection operations for electrical appliances and installations. The maintenance programme is usually prepared in such a way as to meet both the manufacturers’ recommendations and the requirements concerning the use of the appliances in question.
Inspections aim at electrical safety
The content and extent of inspections vary, and the inspections are often performed under self-supervision. The legislation of most countries provides regulations concerning such inspections. These regulations may have been issued as part of the technical regulations, but inspections are very often performed in pursuit of occupational and personal safety. There are great differences between the Nordic countries in the implementation of periodic inspections of electrical equipment and installations.
Norway has adopted an internal control system that covers all companies and has its own regulations ("Internkontrollforeskriften"). The system is applied to occupational safety, environmental protection and many other fields. Thus, the owner of the company is responsible for the compliance of electrical appliances and installations with the requirements, and for their safety, as part of this internal control. Direktoratet for samfunnssikkerhet og beredskap (DSB) is the key authority whose duty it is to organise electrical inspections to be carried out by local electrical control centres (DLE, i.e. "de lokale eletrisitetstilsyn"). These centres belong to the organisations of the electricity distribution companies. On the basis of the experiences gained from electrical losses, Norway has made an amendment to the regulations, aiming at more precise and improved electrical inspections. The objects of inspection are divided into four groups, the inspection intervals of which are 5, 12, 20 and 30 years. – In practice, the majority of companies have made an agreement with an authorised electric service provider on regular, in most cases annual, inspections.
In Denmark, electrical appliances and installations are supervised by "sikkerhedsstyrelsen" or DSTA (Danish Safety Technology Authority). This authority concentrates on the safety aspects of fire, explosion and accident risks. It mainly operates as an information centre and consultant. From the year 2001, 10% of all new electrical installations in all buildings in Denmark reported by authorised electricians have been examined. As of 2008, the inspections will be extended to cover 10% of the reported changes, this information being collected from municipalities. Furthermore, an external body will undertake to ensure that electricians report their work properly. Since the above-mentioned 10% concerns all buildings, it is estimated that only a few large companies will be included within the scope of the inspections. - Industrial safety regulations require periodic inspections of various machinery and equipment, such as electric forklifts, lifters etc. These inspections also cover electrical installations of electrically operated appliances. The inspections are normally performed annually.
In Sweden, the insurance industry entered into an agreement with the government as early as 1925 to handle loss prevention related to electrical safety by performing electrical inspections in industrial and commercial facilities, as well as on large farms. Therefore, inspections are required in the insurance terms and conditions. The inspection frequency depends on the line of business and the sums insured. Inspections are carried out every one to five years, most commonly every three years. Saw mills, for example, are inspected annually. Thermographic surveys must be performed in locations with the greatest fire risk. The operations are centralised on the Electrical Auditing Committee (Elektriska nämden) of the Swedish Fire Protection Association (Svenska Brandskyddsföreningen). The 195 inspectors have been certified by this committee and the inspections currently cover approximately 30,000 objects. They can be found in the register maintained by the committee, from which the insurance companies may also check the date of the latest inspection and view the inspection reports.
In Finland, periodic electrical inspections are required for business, office, industrial and agricultural buildings equipped with fuses rated at over 35 A and for more powerful electric installations and equipment. The obligation does not concern residential buildings as such. Electric installations are divided into three categories, the inspection intervals of which are 5, 10 or 15 years. The inspection interval for industrial objects is from 10 to 15 years, in practice. These considerably long inspection intervals are compensated for through the electrical maintenance programmes of industrial companies and the inspections included within them.
Practices also vary in other European countries. Germany has a similar system to Sweden: annual inspections of electrical appliances and installations are included in fire insurance policies ("Klausel 3602" in insurance terms and conditions). Insurance companies require these inspections to reduce fire risks and they can be performed in Germany by inspectors authorised by VdS Schadenverhütung, which is a company owned by the insurance companies. Annual electrical inspections are also in use for example in Great Britain (electrical wiring test) and France.
Regulations concerning inspections of movable electrical appliances are included in industrial safety regulations in many countries. Employers in Great Britain are obliged to inspect the portable electrical appliances used in work places on an annual basis. This "PAT testing" (PAT = Portable Appliances Testing) forms part of the company’s electrical safety, and the tests may be conducted by the company’s own electrician, based on possession of sufficient qualifications. The system used in Germany is almost identical ("Prüfung ortsveränderlicher elektrischer Geräte"). In both countries, a sticker is placed on the appliance, indicating that the appliance has been tested. Inspection obligations concerning these kinds of appliances in particular are not provided for in the legislation of any Nordic country, but in Sweden they are included within the scope of the inspections described above.
As described above, inspection practices for electric equipment vary a great deal between different countries. Some countries require annual inspections of the whole installation, but there are also inspection intervals as long as 15 years. The common feature for most countries, however, seems to be that there are deficiencies in implementation of electrical inspections and that the electrical fire statistics are turning increasingly alarming.
Electrical inspections are of great importance in loss prevention
Regular inspections of electrical equipment and installations have proved to be the best way to prevent electrical fires.
Electrical installations and appliances do not necessarily keep up with new needs and requirements, and the demands and conditions of facilities also change. Among other things, the condition, functioning and adequacy of installations change considerably over the years. Moreover, all companies make changes to their electricity distribution network all of the time: new appliances are installed, wirings are made for them, switchboards are replaced, capacity is increased etc. Electrical inspections help in detecting objects that are important in terms of electrical safety and objects requiring improvement.
The thermography has proved to be an incomparable and cost-efficient tool in predictive maintenance. The use of thermography as an inspection method has increased quickly in industrial companies. It can be performed by the company’s own maintenance unit but, especially in small enterprises, there is often insufficient experience for performing scans or interpreting the scan results. In such a case, it is advisable to use the services of specialised professionals who, after conducting a sufficiently comprehensive inspection, will provide the client with a written report with pictures and recommendations for improvements and repairs.
Are our electrical appliances and installations safe?
The level of attention to electrical safety is indicated, for example, by the following:
- First, it is worth checking that the documentation on the company’s electrical installations is in good order and that the commissioning inspections for electrical equipment have been performed. If electrical drawings, for example, have not been updated, you should assume that the safety of electrical appliances and installations has not been sufficiently attended to. Electrical equipment should not be taken into use without a commissioning inspection. This inspection verifies that the equipment meets the required safety level and that it can be taken into use without danger to life, health or property.
- Are electrical installations made and implemented according to plan? It is advisable to follow the overall plan to avoid problems with connecting to the rest of the electrical network, for example with the current-carrying capacity or protection of cables and conductors.
- Have there been several near-accident situations, electrical accidents or incipient electrical fires, e.g. more than in the same line of business on average? If a high frequency of electrical fires (scorching damages of appliances, short circuits etc.) is observed, the situation needs to be resolved.
- Have any deficiencies in electrical safety been detected in connection with quality system auditing, inspections by authorities, or inspections or risk surveys conducted by the company itself, insurance companies or others?
- Does electrical maintenance operate preventively and systematically? For example, electrical appliances in poor condition, loose connections, loose cable ends, unsealed cable penetrations, faulty appliances or unprotected live parts, electric motors and appliances covered by dust all indicate deficiencies.
If a company wants to update issues related to the safety of electrical appliances and installations, it is worth having the company’s technical services survey the situation together with the relevant parties – users of the appliances (e.g. production), the representative of the owner of the building, etc. If the company does not have sufficient expertise of its own, it will have to recruit qualified professionals for the project.
The survey may result in a comprehensive action programme. To ensure electrical safety, it is crucial that you update the maintenance programme and make sure that the inspection programme is comprehensive enough and involves sufficiently frequent inspections. Companies should also ensure that the inspections are carried out frequently enough, instead of settling for the minimum requirements.
If a considerably long time has passed since the above mentioned inspections have been conducted, we recommend that they be carried out without delay, because fire safety and electrical safety walk hand in hand.
Anna Maria Vähäkuopus, If
Pentti Kautto, Inspecta