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With summer fast approaching, it’s easy for businesses and households to get caught up in preparing for Australia’s peak bushfire season, clearing leaves and twigs from gutters, cutting back shrubs and removing debris.
But what is often dangerously overlooked is in fact one of the country’s most common causes of fires in the built world, electrical failure or electrical ‘arc’ related fires.
Electrical fires started by appliances, overloaded power points, damaged power outlets and general cabling wear and tear has become one of Australia’s leading causes of fires.
According to the latest statistics, 20 percent of all fires are caused by electrical failure or faults.
In Victoria, an electricity-related spark is one of the largest contributors to fires, and in New South Wales appliances and electric failures fuel about 40 percent of fires.
Many electrical fires can actually be avoided, if the right preventative measures are put in place.
While the usual culprits like heaters, overloaded electricity circuits, faulty fuses and loose wire connections are well known, the least suspecting everyday appliances such as kettles, fridges and even laptop and mobile phone chargers can also play a major role in igniting fires.
Earlier this year an electrical fault was believed to be the ignition source of a fire that destroyed a shed and two businesses in Sydney.
Another 2018 incident involved a mobile phone left charging on a bed, which sparked an Adelaide house fire causing $30,000 in damages.
And just last month a fridge was found guilty of setting a service station alight in Queensland, due to an electrical fault in its compression unit.
So what can you do to prevent electrical fires likes these happening throughout the year?
How to spot the clues before it all goes up in smoke
Discoloured or charred outlets and switches are two of the biggest telltale signs of an electrical fire waiting to happen, as is a circuit breaker that keeps tripping.
Replacing old wiring, although costly, is another proactive measure to preventing electrical fires.
But the main causes of electrical fires - electrical arc faults or failures - are not always easy to identify, and therefore harder to mitigate.
Electric arc faults or failures can be best described as when loose or corroded wiring makes irregular or sporadic contact with metal contact points, causing electric currents to spark or arc.
That buzzing or hissing sound coming from a light switch or outlet? That’s often the sound of electrical arcing taking place. Each arc heats and gradually ignites the wiring insulation.
Peace of mind while you are sleeping
Some common causes of electrical arcs include pulling cables out of power points repeatedly without care, crushing cabling between objects, cable damaging from rodents and circuit conductor faults.
Europe and America have already established safety standards relating to the installation of arc fault detection devices, with Australia soon to follow.
Provision for installing arc fault detection devices was a new addition in the latest electrical installation industry standards AS/NZS 3000:2018 (otherwise known as the Wiring Rules for Australia and New Zealand).
While installation of these devices is not mandatory (yet), the inclusion of arc detection devices in the new standard developed by Standards Australia, in collaboration with industry and government, is a big step toward widespread technology adoption.
Arc Fault Detection Devices (AFDDs) are devices that are specifically targeted to safeguard against arc faults by automatically tripping or cutting the power to a circuit when they detect unusual or harmful electric arcs.
However, these devices can often set off a false alarm and trip off the power disrupting the power supply to a business or building, or they fail to trip the circuit at all.
Ecocentric Energy has developed a technology that tackles arc detection from a new perspective, detecting electrical failure or arcs well before the need to trip a circuit.
The Perth-based company’s Numen technology is a cloud-based data analytics platform that continuously monitors, analyses and learns the performance and energy usage pattern of a building.
Numen can reveal the behaviour and performance of devices and monitor appliances and circuits for faults, including electrical arcs.
For example, if Numen was deployed at the Queensland service station mentioned previously, it could have predicted and alerted staff of the fridge’s compression unit failure before it went up in smoke.
Similarly, in the case of the Sydney fire that destroyed two businesses, Numen could have identified the electrical fault via its analysis of the buildings’ energy behaviour patterns, saving thousands in damages.
Making the world a safer place
By 2023 the global arc flash protection/detection market is expected to reach US$2.5 billion, growing at about 5 per cent year each year between 2018 and 2023 as the technology continues to advance and prove its reliability in fire prediction and safety.
Numen has been developed in partnership with federal agency CSIRO, with the technology tried, tested and third party certified for international deployment.
Numen is also currently being trialled at a multinational insurance business in Australia, which could lead to a nationwide rollout next year.
The potential of this arc detection technology globally to prevent electrical fires, save businesses thousands in damage costs and most importantly, save lives, cannot be underestimated.
The future of fire prevention lies in better understanding and detecting electrical arcs, and I’m confident in technology’s role when it comes to shaping global efforts targeting fire hazards throughout the built world.
Australians tend to be obsessed with bushfire preparation, so much so that they overlook the real threat lurking within the wiring and appliances that have the potential to set their homes and businesses alight.
By Tim Bray, CEO, Ecocentric Energy