by Brian Leborgne
Office buildings may be emptier now than they were at this time last year, but a reduction in occupancy can actually have a silver lining for building owners and property managers. It’s a great time to complete the maintenance tasks that may not be top-of-mind, but are nevertheless very important. One such task is an arc flash study for your building.
What’s an arc flash, and why do you need to perform an arc flash study? First off, the word “arc” is used to describe electricity moving through the air between two points. That shock you get when you touch a metal door knob? That’s an arc, on a very small scale. When dealing with high-energy electrical equipment, an unexpected arc causes the release of electrical energy in the form of heat and pressure; essentially, an explosion known as an arc flash.
Arc flashes are generally caused by equipment failure, a fault or surge somewhere else in the system, or human error. Because none of these factors are inherently predictable, anyone working on electrical equipment has to be aware of the risks at all times, even when equipment is contained in fire-proof electric rooms and electricians are following NFPA guidelines to avoid working on live equipment (a guideline that the teams at Interstate always follow). That risk awareness is where arc flash studies and warning labels come in.
An arc flash warning label gives key information about a particular piece of electrical equipment, usually including voltage, various safety boundaries, and guidance on safety gear required. With this information, a qualified electrician is able to determine the appropriate level of protection and precaution necessary to begin working on that piece of equipment.
To determine the information on that label, Interstate’s own in-house electrical engineering team works hand-in-hand with our electricians and our safety personnel to assemble the requisite details. But gathering the necessary information to calculate arc flash risk is no easy task. In theory, if a building has up-to-date schematics and design documents, those would give some guidance. But in a lot of cases – especially in New England with all of our older buildings – that documentation doesn’t exist or hasn’t been properly updated. Interstate engineers and field teams working together can map out the entire electrical system as it exists and document it in a new one line diagram. Then the engineers assess the information and use advanced software to calculate risk, voltage, etc.
“While an arc flash may never occur at your facility, there is always that risk,” says Dylan Baer, safety officer at Interstate Electrical Services Corporation. “It may be as simple as an animal on a bare overhead wire or a lightning strike that is the cause but the unfortunate truth is that, if you do have an arc flash, a human will be involved.”
Arc flash studies, warning labels, and proper precautions are increasingly required by property owners and their insurance companies. Any and all electrical equipment in a facility adds liability for the owners, and it is always in the best interest of everyone involved to make sure the appropriate knowledge is shared to prevent any harm or hazards from happening. Performing an arc flash study before and during construction of a facility can also help mitigate unnecessary costs down the line by making sure each piece of equipment can handle the potential load or will function properly in the case of equipment fault somewhere in the system.
So take the first step toward peace of mind: Get a risk analysis and put the right warnings and precautions in place.
Brian Leborgne is service manager at Interstate Electrical Services Corporation.