Power utilities, data centres, critical control rooms, manufacturing plants, oil and gas rigs… in our complex, fuel hungry, data driven society we are reliant on many mission critical industries which require power on a 24-7 basis. Time is money and downtime is costly. And aside to the critical risk to human life, a fire can mean interruption to supply, financial penalties and irreparable damage to corporate reputation.
According to the NFPA in 2016, an average of 37,000 fires occur in industrial and manufacturing properties every year, resulting in 18 civilian deaths, 279 civilian injuries and $1 billion in property damage. Common causes are combustible dust, hot work, flammable liquids/gases, equipment and machinery, and electrical hazards.¹
Organisations are investing in ever more sophisticated detection and suppression systems to protect staff, manufacturing lines, valuable equipment and assets. Yet the context of ‘mission critical’ has undoubtedly shifted over time – whilst it still describes processes that significantly impact business operations and survival, the assets to be protected are increasingly digital rather than physical assets and operations.
The heavy economic penalty of even a short shutdown makes it critical to maintain continuity of operations, both during and immediately after a fire emergency. For example, in data centres, the cost of data centre outages is now estimated at $8851/minute2 and rising. With many businesses relying so heavily on ecommerce and digital trading, even a brief shutdown can have an impact on productivity, brand perception and search engine optimisation (SEO) rankings. If a customers’ favourite online store is unavailable, even temporarily, they may find an alternative website and not return.
For the travel industry, the ability to keep things moving, even in the event of a fire, is critical. In air traffic control centres, fire and business outage has an immediate and measurable impact in terms of delayed and cancelled flights, unscheduled flights, and potential reimbursement to customers. Yet there is a deeper effect on lost productivity for business passengers, reduction of tourism spending impact at the flight destination, waste of fuel for airlines re-routing planes, lost revenue in customers finding alternative ways of completing their journey…. the list goes on. Other transport infrastructure is similarly affected by fire. Where transport is highly concentrated, in city train and tube networks for example, apart from business impact, threat of or actual fire can also lead to reduction in traveller confidence which can significantly affect future revenue. Restoring ‘business as usual’ as fast as possible remains critical.
Protection of all critical assets requires alternative ways of thinking about fire protection. Water sprinklers have been used for years as an effective solution against structural fires; however, deluging a server or control room with water can result in equipment destruction and interruptions of service. Water-mist systems, a newer form of aqueous technology, discharge a fine spray of micro droplets in a mist form, suppressing a fire with less damage and clean-up than a traditional sprinkler system. However, water in any form is still water and can cause short-circuits, irreparable damage and data loss.
Gaseous fire-fighting systems have been used extensively in the protection of mission critical industries for some time, and for many years halon was seen as the ‘gold standard’. In 1994 production of halon was banned due to its impact on the stratospheric ozone layer, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) became widely used as clean agents. However, the established concerns over the high global warming potentials (GWP) for HFCs themselves have meant that this replacement solution is also unsustainable. The Montreal Protocol — the same international agreement that led to the global ban of halons — has been expanded to cover substances with high GWP. The Kigali Amendment, ratified in 2016, specifically targets HFCs for phase-down.3
There are two main groups of gaseous extinguishing agents that offer an environmentally sustainable alternative without concerns of ozone depletion or GWP – inert gas systems based on Nitrogen and Argon and alternative halocarbons such as Novec 1230 Fire Protection Fluid from 3M. Inert gas extinguishing systems have a neutral impact on the environment since natural resources are used as the extinguishing media. Novec 1230 fluid from 3M is also an environmentally sustainable solution with zero ozone depletion potential and a global warming potential of less than 1 due to a five day atmospheric lifetime.
Inert gas systems displace oxygen in the atmosphere until flames can no longer be supported and the fire is extinguished. This requires a large volume of gas (approximately 40% of the room volume depending on regulation) to be introduced within 2 minutes of release. To facilitate inert gas systems, it may be necessary to construct specialised storage areas to safely contain large volumes of gas at high pressures (300Bar), plus over-pressure vents, to release over-pressure to an outdoor space or into an isolated shaft.
Halocarbon systems such as Novec 1230 fluid from 3M offer the same clean and sustainable protection as inert gas systems. Yet because Novec 1230 fluid from 3M is stored as a liquid, the systems take up much less room, typically requiring 80% less space than an inert gas system. This offers a significant benefit in applications with restricted space such as marine applications, or applications with complex space configurations. Such systems are also kept at low pressure (typically 25 or 42 Bar) reducing the need for specialised storage. Halocarbon systems do not displace oxygen but rely on cooling to extinguish incipient fires.
Both inert and halocarbon agents should be installed as part of a fire protection solution that has full system approval following testing of the whole system against internationally recognised standards (ISO, CEN, NFPA). For halocarbons, this approval should ensure discharge and reach of design concentration in less than 10 seconds, extinguishing in 30 seconds or less, and a hold concentration of 10 seconds. Using a halocarbon agent which hasn’t undergone extensive testing, or a system from a non-approved OEM is a risk that many guardians of mission critical facilities are (understandably) not willing to take.
Novec 1230 fluid from 3M has the highest margin of safety amongst all clean agents for occupied spaces requiring regular access. This is due largely to the low design concentration required to extinguish a fire. When considering an organisation’s critical assets, human life has to be considered the ultimate priority. Margin of safety is particularly critical for applications like the marine industry, where escape from a protected area is more challenging. Use of Carbon dioxide systems, previously commonplace in the marine industry, has understandably declined since when used in the concentration required to extinguish fires, it is lethal and therefore unsuitable for use in occupied spaces.
Clearly, the consequences of fire can last much longer than the final flame that is extinguished. Fortunately there are now fire protection solutions that require no compromise across all of the parameters that should be considered: speed of extinguishing, environmental properties, requirement for clean-up and safety of margin for people.
For more information, go to www.3m.co.uk/novec1230
- NFPA: “Fires in US Industrial or Manufacturing Properties”, Campbell R, April 2016
- “Cost of Data Center Outages,” (2016) Ponemon Institute, quoted by www.itracs.com
- UNEP Ozonaction Factsheet www.unep.fr/ozonaction/information/mmcfiles/7809-e-Factsheet_Kigali_Amendment_to_MP_2017.pdf