Aspirating smoke detection in industrial environments

June 2013 Fire & Safety, Industrial (Industry)

The correct application of fire detection in industrial environments is no less important than that of any commercial or residential environment. The fundamental challenge for many however, is the selection of the right equipment.

The development of fire detection products has come a long way over the past 25 years. In earlier times the choice of equipment was limited and somewhat basic in performance. Today the industry can choose from a myriad of equipment. Manufacturers inevitably come up with new ideas, introduce innovative techniques and develop specific equipment with the aim to satisfy new needs and capture greater percentages of the available market. The industrial market in particular has always been one where traditional detection equipment struggles with performance.

New equipment development brings with it certain questions – one in particular: “What is the best technology or type of equipment available to serve a particular risk?” There is no easy answer, since each application and environment is individual, with its own idiosyncrasies and needs. Determining the most suitable equipment puts pressure on those that are involved directly with the installation of fire detection systems, those that specify systems, cover risks, attend to alarm callouts and certainly the end user who lives with the life cycle cost of any system installed.

Cost plays an important role in the equipment selection. Having an ever increasing number and choice of detectors available and with the wide variety of applications in which they can be installed, there is no doubt that in many applications equipment is being misapplied.

There are several reasons for this: often a limited knowledge of the equipment and technology, a lack of understanding of the application and environment, a lack of understanding of design around sustainable maintenance for the life of the equipment and certainly budgetary constraints. The need to simply win projects by installing the least expensive equipment is also a known industry concern.

The best outcomes are realised when the key stakeholders communicate openly and collaboratively to identify the variables that a detection system will be required to perform against.

Industrial market

The term industrial generally refers to that market involved primarily with manufacturing, processing and other similar operations.

Industrial applications present many challenges for effective and reliable fire detection. Not only does the system need to detect fires as early as possible, but it must also withstand the various environmental conditions without generating nuisance alarms.

Conditions can vary from mildly contaminated to that of high background pollution. While many of the cleaner areas, for example control and switch rooms, can easily be catered for with standard forms of smoke detection, there are areas that require careful thought. In high background-pollution environments or where constant dust or even smoke and fumes need to be tolerated as part of normal operation, the challenges in applying effective fire detection become more difficult.

Equipment must perform when dust, dirt, and high levels of background pollution exist, contend with varying airflow conditions and finally offer the best possible benefits for the total cost over the life of the detector.

Industrial site characteristic and fire system objectives

Industrial site characteristics are generally wide and varied. Large fuel loads, high temperatures, toxic, flammable and/or corrosive gases and liquids, wash downs, variable air movement, high ceilings – the list goes on. It is significantly different to the commercial office or shopping centre. Many sites can be slow to evacuate, creating a real need for the earliest fire detection possible.

The fire protection objectives may vary but are generally decided on by insurers, owners and site managers. These can include:

* Minimise the potential for fires and explosions through an effective fire prevention plan.

* Provide an effective means of limiting the size and consequence of fire incidents through early detection, effective emergency equipment and procedures.

* Avoid high insurance deductibles.

* Lower insurance premiums.

* Ensure compliance with local codes and standards.

* Provide ease of maintenance at minimal cost.

The fire risks may not be significantly different to those in other market sectors. Electrical equipment faults, ignition risks due to external factors, lighting faults, bad housekeeping and human errors can all contribute to real losses. Of course there are specific risks, such as mechanical equipment faults, overheating due to excessive friction or equipment malfunction, open flames and hot surfaces. Regardless of the risk, it must be carefully assessed and the appropriate fire detection equipment selected.

Detection challenges

The environmental conditions on industrial sites can present huge challenges. High levels of dust and dirt can cause malfunctions and nuisance alarms. Smoke dilution in large volumetric enclosures, influenced by air movement and stratification, make it difficult to detect early signs of fire. Normal background levels of smoke cannot easily be distinguished from real fire conditions. Unheated or uncooled spaces cause temperature extremes outside of the operating range of some smoke detectors. Onsite activities such as wash downs can damage or destroy smoke detectors. In all, the many challenges a detector must face in these circumstances limit the type available and its suitability to withstand these challenges.

Choosing correct equipment is the first step in ensuring a fit-for-purpose solution. This will be addressed in the next issue in the second in this series of articles from Paul Leslie.

For more information contact Derek Waddell, Xtralis, 082 316 2601,,

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