Just connect

Published:  13 September, 2017

Procter & Gamble is examining a range of technologies covering wireless gauges, fire door monitoring and drones as part of a project that aims to deliver a smart fire system, delegates heard at the NFPA’s recent annual conference and exhibition in Boston, US.

The Fireconnect project began with identifying everything that could be digitised and be made smart, explained Christina Francis, global fire protection director at Procter & Gamble. Current inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) practices were questioned, she explained, and the possibility of linking the fire system to the building management system in the future was considered.

The starting point for making the fire system smart began with the fire pump, the core of the fire suppression system. The team already knew that gathering data for the ITM system could make it smarter from a predictive standpoint. Under a previous project, authoritative data on diesel-driven engine pumps had been collected, which had proved analytically that weekly testing was beneficial.

Francis outlined current standard practice for understanding a site’s hydraulic system, which typically requires physical inspection. The relevant information may be in a file, but normally to find the information requires walking to a particular riser, somewhere in a large site, where the information may not even be visible due to rust. In the context of a smart system, a barcode on the riser would enable all that information to be pulled out digitally. “Similarly, to find out if a system has pressure, one has to walk to the system and read a gauge; this in the context of a plant where almost everything else is measured wirelessly,” explained Francis.

This situation is no different with one of the most important parts of the fire system, the diesel-driven engine. “If that driver is not driving the pump, then inadequate flow and pressure are being delivered to the system to control the fire,” said Francis. “Today, to ascertain whether there is sufficient cooling water or whether the fuel tank is full, a trained pump operator is required in the pump room during an incident.”

Cooling water is a particularly good example because, if lost during engine operation, the engine will not survive. “Is the heater operating in the pump room, preventing frozen pipes? And the exhaust system for the diesel engine? Is the jockey pump running? What are the section discharge pressures and flow rates?” Questions such as these, explained Francis, can only be answered by taking a bricks-and-mortar approach, and walking to a room that is usually detached from the main site.

Another issue relates to the changing nature of personnel at a site. Pump operators that historically had been very well trained are no longer prevalent, and the norm today involves staff who probably have ten other responsibilities in addition to the fire operator’s role. “Sometimes it may be the guards that attend, guards that may not even have English as their first language, where everything on the engine is in English,” she pointed out.

Looking further down the line, during an incident, it is currently not possible to provide the fire department with basic information such as whether fire doors are open or closed. “There is no reason why fire doors could not be monitored remotely or even be dropped remotely, preventing smoke and heat spread should personnel not drop them as they evacuate the building,” said Francis.

To begin addressing some of these issues, P&G installed Grundfos’ Fireconnect fire pump monitoring system in pump house number two in its site in Greensboro, Carolina.

Fireconnect is a smart fire system that provides real active data of what is happening. “It monitors what the jockey pump control panel monitors and provides data that behind the scenes could be trending different things. It shows the number of starts and stops of jockey pump; how long it ran for, whether it ran for longer than normal,” said Francis. “The data can be used to detect trends and enables the owner to be more predictive with maintenance.”

A flow meter in the section line of the fire pumps provides measurements in real time, enabling fire pump test results to be seen at any time, including electronic data of the water flowing back to the tank.

Some of the benefits P&G has experienced by remotely monitoring pressure system and receiving hydraulic data, outlined Francis, include knowing whether a system is being over-pressurised or whether a relief valve requires checking: “If pressure on the loop is being measured, but the supply gauge is off, for example, it could be an indication of a closed valve.” Perhaps the most significant potential benefit of this smart fire system relates to the incident command part of an incident, explained Francis. “In theory, smart analysis of the data could lead to an indication of the size of the fire, the quantity of water remaining in the tank and the minutes of water left – all invaluable data for the fire department.”

With a smart fire system it would be possible to ascertain whether or not a fire was being controlled; a system that has been flowing 500 gallons per minute for 20 minutes usually indicates that the sprinklers have control of the fire. Similarly, a smart fire system monitoring smoke detectors could indicate whether smoke has moved onto different floors. “What if it were possible to see that the diesel engine was starting to fail?” asked Francis, adding: “All these are areas that would enable responders to make educated decisions on arrival on site as well as during an incident.”

While P&G’s project so far only covers the fire pump system, there are other aspects that the company is working towards. Installing a solenoid valve system on the sprinkler system with a flow meter would enable the system to be monitored in real time, and even allow testing to be carried remotely, rather than paying a third party to open a valve.

Other initiatives that would save time and effort would be the capability of pulling data from smoke and flame detection systems, as well as fire door activation sensors, into the incident command system. Even hydrants could come into the system: knowing the water flow pressure on the main system would mean that a hydrant could be opened without having to first fit a pitot gauge.

All this smart data would help in one of the key goals of assisting and improving incident command response, said Francis, where typically the primary data required on arrival is whether the pump is running and the identification of the risers in alarm.

The use of augmented reality is another technology that is being picked up in other industries but has yet to make its presence felt in the fire sector: “Why not use it as part of inspection and maintenance? A piece of equipment could be scanned for data, rather than looking through a manual.” Pre-fire plans could be virtualised, showing the location of a fire and even what the area looked like before, with hazards included, she added.

Looking toward the future, Francis admitted that the pressure gauge example was ‘simple stuff’: “But we have to start somewhere. Next is to find a way of expanding this technology so that it helps everyone, from commanders to owners, as well as connecting it all together into the big data world of ITM management.”

The NFPA is beginning to address connectivity and guidance. A slight change to NFPA 20 2016 (Standard for the installation of stationary pumps for fire protection), Index C, refers to fire pump controller connectivity, “Which is good because it doesn’t help me if everyone has different systems that cannot be tied together. As a building owner, I want to keep things simple. We also have NFPA 25 2017 (Standard for the inspection, testing, and maintenance of water-based fire protection systems), Annex F, which focusses on the collection of inspection, test, maintenance and monitoring data. Although these are non-enforceable at the moment, but future editions could incorporate them into the enforceable part.”

There are many things that could be done relatively easily to make a fire system intelligent, said Francis: “In the next few weeks we are looking at different technologies covering wireless gauges and fire door monitoring, as well as the use of drones for carrying out visual inspections. Data is just data; it’s not smart, but once it is gathered it could be made to think, and that is out goal. It is all a question of how to get that data versus just waiting for something to happen.”

Click here to find out about Grundfos’ work on Fireconnect.

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