Shock of the New
Assessing electrical safety hazards in emerging energy-saving technologies
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2012
We’re all aware of the many energy-saving technologies entering the marketplace. Those of us who use NFPA codes and standards every day are also aware that some of these technologies introduce questions that relate to electrical safety in the built environment, though these issues may not be readily apparent. It wasn’t until rooftop photovoltaic panels became widespread, for example, that concerns about de-energization and firefighter safety came to light as a result of a number of incidents worldwide.
In 2011, the Fire Protection Research Foundation conducted four projects that addressed the impact of these technologies on electrical safety, as well as an assessment of the NFPA codes and standards that might be affected. These projects have a few common attributes: an assessment of the electrical safety hazards presented by fast-moving technological developments; a review of the relevant codes and standards to ensure that their provisions are developed as needed to address these hazards; and a strong technology transfer component to provide training to the people who enforce those codes.
As part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) embarked on a rapid standardization initiative to enable a quick transition to the next generation of power distribution through the smart-grid initiative. NIST invited the Foundation to work with the National Electrical Code-Making Panels to ensure they have the information necessary to address the safety impacts of this transition for the built infrastructure. California Polytechnic State University, the Foundation’s contractor, conducted a comprehensive assessment of the NEC® and other NFPA electrical safety standards to identify provisions that will affect the implementation of smart-grid technology, and vice versa. The project included a substantial technology transfer component for the nation’s electrical inspection community.
A similar project, funded by NFPA at the request of the National Electrical Code-Making Panels, assessed the impact that the growing use of non-linear power by energy-saving technologies, such as LED and fluorescent lighting, has on power quality. Although a much larger research program is needed to determine if the levels of harmonics created by this form of power use are significant, the project created a framework for subsequent work as well as a primer on the subject.
Finally, the Foundation has been active in three areas related to electric vehicle safety. A project completed in 2011 identified the specific provisions of the NEC and of NFPA 70E®, Electrical Safety in the Workplace®, that will be affected by electric vehicle charging, work that can help a task force evaluating the NEC determine what changes are needed for the code in the current cycle. The Foundation’s Property Insurance Research Group completed an assessment of the hazards associated with lithium-ion batteries, the predominant EV battery technology, in storage configurations; work continues this year and will explore storage protection methods. The Foundation is currently working with the Department of Energy and the auto industry to develop a project to explore best practices for first response to emergencies involving battery hazards.
Those who use the NFPA codes and standards have a long history of protection against hazards associated with new technologies. The goal of all of these projects is to quantify these hazards and inform NFPA codes and standards development committees so that NFPA’s technical documents can be ready with appropriate safety-related provisions.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.