Best Practices for Protecting Electrical Equipment in Natural Disasters

Best Practices for Protecting Electrical Equipment in Natural Disasters

This piece was originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of electroindustry.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “weather, water, and climate-related events cause an average of approximately 650 deaths and $15 billion in damage per year.”1

Chad Kennedy, Director of Industry Standards for Power Equipment, Schneider Electric

In 2018 alone, there were 14 different billion-dollar disaster events in the United States. And over the past three years, the yearly frequency of billion-dollar disaster events has doubled the long-term average.2 With storm data demonstrating a pattern of increasingly extreme weather, there’s a good chance this isn’t an aberration; we may be seeing the new “extreme” normal.

No matter what, hurricanes, wildfires, blizzards, and other extreme events will happen again. Following  best practices for preparation is the best way to protect the electrical infrastructure of the buildings where we live, work, and play. This article explores some key best practices and industry guidance on how to protect your electrical equipment against natural disasters.

Standards Enhance Safety

Industry codes and Standards provide useful guidance on the proper installation, maintenance, servicing, and operation of electrical equipment. When it comes to disaster event planning, these Standards recommend starting with a risk assessment to understand the potential site exposure and system impact from disaster events. For example, Article 708 of the National Electrical Code® (NEC) contains requirements for designated critical operations areas. These are mission- critical buildings or areas where disruption would impact national security, public health, or safety. A documented risk assessment and associated mitigation strategy is the starting point for providing the  necessary safety and evaluation of code compliance.

Although general businesses are not required to follow the rules in Article 708, the completion of a risk assessment will provide needed guidance when creating plans for disaster events and recovery.

To keep your facility safe and operable, the NEC includes the key items that a risk assessment should identify:

  • Potential hazards (whether from a natural disaster or human error)
  • The likelihood of their occurrence
  • The vulnerability of the system to the identified hazards

An essential part of the risk assessment is evaluating where specific equipment is located or positioned. For example, when considering flood damage exposure, the assessment may lead to having backup generators and associated fuel pumps elevated to be kept safe. During Hurricane Katrina, for instance, flooding knocked out basement generators in a New Orleans hospital, leading to an emergency evacuation of all patients.3

Completion of a risk assessment should be followed by a mitigation strategy that addresses what equipment and actions should be included in an electrical emergency action plan and the events that would trigger these actions.

Crafting the Right Plan

Guidance on creating a natural disaster plan for your site can be found in NFPA 1600 Standard on Continuity, Emergency, and Crisis Management. NFPA 1600 provides a method on how to create an electrical emergency action plan to save facilities from experiencing too much downtime. The action plan also:

  • Reduces time to restore short- and long-term power quickly and safely
  • Minimizes uncertainty when a disaster occurs
  • Increases understanding of electrical assets, available emergency services, and replacement market availability

While it takes a lot of time and thought to develop an action plan, doing so is fundamental to restoring power safely. To build a successful action plan, facility managers should approach its development by thinking about what they need both within a facility and outside of it.

  1. Internally: Teams need to define the emergency criteria clearly, whether it’s the damage from a natural disaster or even tripping circuit breakers that can affect productivity. They must also identify mission-critical electrical equipment and list these within the plan and associated documentation, such as the facility single-line Once the teams identify the mission-critical pieces of electrical equipment, they should perform analysis on each of these assets to assess availability in the market, lead times, and a plan of action when the equipment is no longer functional.
  2. With external partners: It is important that facility managers maintain relationships with external partners and pre-negotiate emergency service contracts with outside vendors. This way, they do not fall victim to overpricing and insufficient support in the wake of a natural disaster. Facility managers should also clearly state internal and external responsibilities, such as providing electrical one-line diagrams, energization procedures, and coordination and communication activities between multiple vendors. Other factors that should be pre-determined include defining the equipment and service scope, the timeframe of the emergency contract (including expiration date), and contact information.

With an effective action plan in place, facility managers have the tools and strategies needed to get their facilities back to a functional state, but doing this safely needs to be a priority.

Source: “Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Overview,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Centers for Environmental Information, 2019, https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions

Safety Takes a Front Seat

Once the disaster strikes, it’s all hands on deck to restore the facility and get business operations back to normal. But with flooding and other damage, safety, not the speed of recovery, should be the top priority for all employees.

  • Employees must be trained. They should properly examine equipment that may have been affected by flooding, fire, blizzards, or other impacts, and determine if it needs repair or replacement. They should rely on the experience of qualified personnel and act by guidelines set by NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace.
  • Employees should not clean and then reuse damaged equipment. Damaged electrical equipment is dangerous to handle. Even applying cleaning agents or abrasives to electrical equipment to remove debris or residue is likely to do more harm than good. Keep in mind that using damaged equipment can result in system failure and harm people and property.
  • Consult a professional. Qualified personnel should be on-site to evaluate, replace, and repair damaged equipment. Electrical professionals can inspect the system for hidden damage and ensure proper system operation and safety.

Businesses that prepare properly for natural disasters are in the best position to quickly and safely return  to normal operation. With the damage of natural disasters being largely unpredictable, it’s important for facility managers to have the proper plans in place to mitigate the risk, plan for an emergency, and restore electric power once the disaster has ended. ei

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  1. “Weather,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, https://www.noaa.gov/weather
  2. Adam B. Smith, “2018’s Billion Dollar Disasters in Context,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, February 2019, https://www.climate.gov/news-features/ blogs/beyond-data/2018s-billion-dollar-disasters-context

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