Arc flashes—the fiery explosions that can result from short circuits in high-power electrical devices—kill hundreds of workers in the U.S. every year and permanently injure thousands more. They can also wreak financial havoc in the form of fines, lawsuits and damage to expensive equipment.
There are many mitigation strategies, but one of the most effective ways to combat these dangerous events is to anticipate and eliminate the conditions that cause them. The following explores six solutions that enable data centers to spot potential arc flash dangers before they have a chance to do harm, and keep personnel safely away from live connections.
- Perform a Hazard Analysis. Every arc flash mitigation program should begin with a hazard analysis aimed at calculating how much energy an arc flash could release at various points along the power chain. Accuracy is essential with such measurements, so data center managers who lack direct and extensive experience with arc flash incident energy assessment should always seek assistance from a qualified power systems engineer.
- Install remote monitoring, control and diagnostics software. Today’s sophisticated power management systems equip administrators to perform many administrative tasks remotely. They also equip companies to remotely de-energize electrical equipment before data center staff approach it.
- Employ remote racking devices. Traditionally, technicians have had to stand close to equipment with live, electrical connections when racking and un-racking breakers. Remote racking devices enable operators to perform these extremely dangerous tasks from a safe distance.
- Monitor insulation integrity. Deteriorating insulation is the leading cause of arc-producing electrical failures. Identifying and repairing compromised insulation before it fails can help avert arc flash explosions. Predictive maintenance systems provide early warning of insulation failure in medium-voltage switchgear, substations, generators, transformers and motors.
- Monitor pressure junctions. Most electrical equipment contains pressure junctions, such as shipping splits, load lugs and compression fittings. Over time, vibration and thermal cycling can loosen these connections. When current flows through a loosened connection, it can cause overheating and eventually produce an arc flash. Using non-contact thermal sensors called pyrometers; however, data centers can monitor pressure junctions continuously and receive advance notification of loose connections before they become so loose that they create an arc flash explosion.
- Use infrared (IR) windows. Using contactless IR thermography technology, IR windows enable technicians to perform IR scans without removing switchgear side panels, lessening the likelihood of arc flash events caused by accidental contact with live bus.
Arc flash events in industrial environments can do calamitous harm, ranging from disabling or fatal injuries to heavy fines and financially ruinous lawsuits. Yet, far too few data center operators fully appreciate either the hazards arc flashes pose or the frequency with which they occur.
Fortunately, with a few proven technologies and techniques, IT and facilities managers can dramatically mitigate arc flash dangers before they happen. Though no combination of countermeasures can totally eliminate arc flashes, a proper hazard analysis, strict monitoring regimen and the remote execution of potentially dangerous procedures can help organizations make arc flash incidents both significantly less likely to happen and drastically less harmful when they do.