Handling the hot stuff
Published: 01 July, 2005
Once upon a time, the halon gases used to knock out fires in computer rooms were equally hazardous to any human beings exposed to the extinguishing atmosphere. Almost 20 years on, however, a solution has been developed which offers an environment in which people can work and in which it is impossible for a fire to burn.
“Due to the concentration of computer equipment and data in a computer room, the degree of potential damage that could occur from both a fire and conventional fire-extinguishing systems is unacceptable,” comments Mark Knighton European Technical Sales Manager for Lowndesconsult Ltd.
“Take for example, a server monitor that gets overheated, starting a small fire in Media Services. Before the fire was extinguished by a suppression system, only the computer monitor was destroyed. But once the fire was extinguished, the damage was much more extensive. Soot covered everything in the suite, from computers to photographs to cameras,” he explains.
“The rooms were uninhabitable, forcing Media Services to relocate while a specialised contractor cleaned up the smoke damage. Smoke from today’s fires is particularly nasty - burning plastic materials create a corrosive smoke that destroys electronic equipment,” says Mark Knighton.
Environments which don’t support combustion
Lowndesconsult Ltd offers FirePASS - a Fire Protection And Suppressive System suitable for almost any application. It is said to offer excellent proactive protection for computer rooms and sensitive electronic equipment by creating a hypoxic normobaric environment, comparable with that on the top of a mountain or found within civilian airline cabins.
Although the FirePASS has existed since 1995, the technology is only now becoming accepted and known within industry, even though it relies on one of the basic principles of the fire triangle. Knighton refers to this as ‘the common misconception that an artificial gaseous environment should not simulate the Earth’s natural atmospheric gases as much as possible’. Valid data and extensive research have proved different.
The Russian inventor of the FirePASS technology, Gary (Igor) Kotliar, originally developed the technology to help athletes condition themselves in a simulated high-altitude environment. In so-called ‘Hypoxic Training Rooms’, athletes manage to create a higher level of red-blood-cell counts in the bloodstream - this way they increased their fitness and eliminated the problem of altitude sickness. These rooms are currently featured in fitness clubs around the world.
Kotliar, who holds degrees in chemistry, medicine, physics, engineering and electronics, drew two diagrams for IFJ - one of these represented atmospheric conditions created in a hypoxic rooms - and one of the air in an aircraft 8,000 feet above sea level.
The physics suggest that when hypoxic rooms - with low oxygen levels like those found on top of mountains - are created at sea level, nitrogen fills in the spaces created by the oxygen that was filtered out the room. On a mountaintop the lower high-altitude atmospheric pressure makes air thinner, therefore lowering the amount of oxygen per breath.
“I was taken by the idea, like a flash of lightning,” Gary Kotliar says. “Fire looks at oxygen as a fuel. Without it, flammable items just smoulder from heat but are never able to fully combust. I went inside one of my hypoxic chambers, striking matches, one after the other. None of them would light,” he explains.
This instigated Kotliar’s work on large hypoxic human-occupied areas. He eventually developed a way to filter out elements of the atmosphere and this system is now called FirePASS.
Normobaric & hyperbaric air
“FirePASS-P works by providing effluent ventilation of the protected facility with hypoxic (oxygen-depleted) air produced by ambient generators from ambient air,” continues Kotliar.
“It creates a comfortable human breathable atmosphere inside the facility, in which nothing can ignite or burn. This environment corresponds, in its partial pressure of oxygen, to the altitude of 9,000 feet (hyperbaric) and it’s completely safe for people and provides unique health benefits,” he says.
“Extensive studies show that such a hypoxic gaseous environment is indeed healthier for humans than normal ambient air at sea level,” he continues. Having said that, the company does recommend that a minimum of 30 minutes should be taken outside this atmosphere for working periods over six hours within this environment.
FirePASS-P can suit the following applications:
1. As a single computer rack enclosure;
2. As an enclosure built around multiple computer racks;
3. A whole room or even a building can be converted in to a hypoxic environment.
“FirePASS can be installed as an alternative or as a complementary or supplementary option. For instance, sprinkler systems do not have to be removed, because they will simply never be activated. You only need to install and certify a conventional sprinkler suppression system to comply with regulations. However, when the necessity to evacuate a large amount of heat produced by hardware arises, the installation of a standard split air-conditioner unit is required,” Mark Knighton says.
FirePASS-P consists of a necessary amount of hypoxic generators, HEPA Filters and oxygen monitor. The A/C unit, smoke detectors and other supporting equipment can be supplied additionally; technical support, warranties and servicing are included as well.
“The system is simple to use, uncomplicated to install and can be installed in an already-occupied building. If an electrical hazard should occur this is what will happen: smoke and the extensive build-up of heat are detected by the smoke and heat sensors. This will be followed by alarm and automatic interruption of the electric supply of the computers and ancillary equipment, thus eliminating the source of ignition,” reports Knighton .
“Combustion is impossible within a FirePASS-P environment, thus the overheated zone can be easily detected and repaired so limiting downtime for the businesses involved. Smoke and other gases will be removed through the constant hypoxic ventilating of the room. If you have to repair any damage to your computers you do not need to switch off the equipment and as long as the FirePASS-P system is installed and hypoxic levels are maintained there will be no risk of reignition,” he concludes.
The company also offer the FirePASS-S system, which works on the same principle, but is a suppression system suited for environments which cannot be enclosed, such as tunnels. In this case, the hypoxic gas is released directly via piping into the area, while also providing a breathable atmosphere for evacuation.
Tyco’s Hygood i3
Apart from prevention systems like the one featured previously, there are several suppression systems on the market that are non-toxic, non-corrosive and odour-free.
Tyco has just released Hygood i3, designed especially for computer rooms, telecommunications facilities and archive stores. Other applications for the system include: petrochemical and power generation facilities, offshore oil and gas production facilities and gas turbines.
The company claims that i3 is in fact ‘effective for virtually all combustible material and flammable liquid fires’.
Tyco’s Andy Shiner tells IFJ: “Among its many benefits, i3 is fast acting and has a low lifecycle cost. It is well-suited for sensitive electronic equipment because it is electrically non-conductive and has no breakdown products or residues. Hence, there is no risk of damage to sensitive equipment, and it has zero-impact on the environment. Significantly, where space is at a premium, i3 has a smaller footprint than traditional lower pressure inert gas technology.”
Hygood i3 consist out of two naturally occurring gases: argon (50%) and nitrogen (50%). Whilst blended these gases have a similar density to air, so the mixture retains its concentration when discharged for far longer than Halon 1301.
It extinguishes a fire on discharge by reducing the ambient concentration level of oxygen to between 10% and 14%. Just like the FirePASS system the amount of oxygen in the air will be so low that combustion is impossible, but sufficient to keep people alive for a short time span, so very well suited for occupied and enclosed environments. Furthermore, the gas does not obscure vision.
The Hygood i3 is stored in high pressure steel containers with an operating pressure of 300 bar. Installations comprise one or more containers connected to a system of pipework and rapid-discharge nozzles. The cylinders can be stored remote from the area and a bank of cylinders can be used to safeguard more than a single room or enclosure.
“The gases used in our latest product already circulate in the atmosphere so i3 has no detrimental effect on the environment what so ever,” concludes Andy Shiner.
Other options on the market
“We at Kidde Fire Protection have extensive experience regarding fire protection for any application. We have a total-capability-portfolio approach to fire suppression and manufacture all the major suppression technologies and systems having international third party approvals and certification,” comments Lee James, Product Manager for Kidde Fire Protection.
He points out that when you choose fire suppression systems for your facility not every extinguishing agent is suitable for protecting sensitive electronics.
Explains Lee James: “Argonite is an ‘inert gas blend’ of 50% Argon and 50% Nitrogen. With zero Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) and Global Warming Potential (GWP) it has no atmospheric lifetime. When Argonite is discharged into an enclosed space it works by displacing oxygen and reducing it from the normal 21% to a level at which fires will be effectively extinguished.
“A typical design concentration of 40% will reduce the oxygen level to 12.5% within 60 seconds. In occupied areas personnel can continue to breathe safely at this level for short periods of time.”
Although the space requirement for storage cylinders may be greater than that needed for chemical agents, with cylinder storage pressures of 300bar it can protect large volumes with cylinder storage remote from the risk.
“FM-200 (HFC227ea) is a hydrofluorocarbon that has wide global acceptance. With a zero Ozone Depletion Potential and a short atmospheric lifetime, it has proven to be not only the most widely-used Halon replacement, but also an excellent fire suppression agent in its own right, with tens of thousands of systems installed worldwide.
Lee James says: “It works by absorbing heat from both the flame and the fuel, reducing the temperature to a point were the flame can not sustain itself and the fire is extinguished. Discharge times are short, typically 6 to 10 seconds, giving rapid extinguishing.
“It’s safe for use in occupied areas within prescribed concentrations and exposure times. With a relatively small cylinder storage footprint FM-200 is ideally suited to use in areas were space is at a premium or weight restrictions apply,” he points out.
A relative newcomer to the fire suppression market, 3M Novec 1230 fluid is central to Kidde’s latest clean agent product - KD-1230.
“This Fluoroketone is stored as a liquid but thanks to advanced nozzle technology is discharged as a colourless, non-conductive and non-corrosive gas. Novec1230 fluid has the highest heat capacity of any commercially available chemical suppression agent, giving lower extinguishing concentrations than its main rivals and safety margins of up to 100%. With zero Ozone Depletion Potential and an atmospheric lifetime of only 5 days it meets demands for safety, extinguishing performance and the environment,” concludes Lee James.