Transformer

Transformer Fire Protection

While superheroes and the big box office may have everything thinking about robots when we talk about transformers, they are actually a much more important device that is essential for the transmission, distribution, and utilization of alternating current electric power.

What are transformers and what do they do?

In basic terms a transformer is a device that transfers electric energy from one AC circuit to another, either increasing or reducing the voltage. This is done for several reasons, but two main purposes are to reduce the voltage of conventional power circuits to operate low-voltage devices and to raise the voltage from electric generators so that electric power can be transmitted over long distances. They have been in use for a long time and are an essential piece of our electrical infrastructure. The most common transformer that people often see are located on telephone poles.

Why are transformers hazardous?

Transformers are often times filled with oil for insulation, to prevent electrical arcing and to serve as a coolant. This oil is similar to mineral oil and very flammable. When a transformer fails it can lead to an intense fire and violent explosion (feel free to check out one of the many videos online on exploding transformers). Transformers can hold anywhere between a few gallons to thousands of gallons. Transformers can be installed indoors or outdoors, but indoor transformers typically are not filled with oil while outdoor transformers often are.

Oil insulated transformer protection methods

Some of the main considerations when talking about transformer fire protection are fire walls & separation, water based fire protection systems, containment, drainage and lightning protection.

Fire Wall & Separation

Ideally, we want to prevent transformers from catching fire, but in the event one does catch fire or explode we want to limit the damage and potential spread of fire. This can be done by several means, the most common being physical separation and fire walls. NFPA 850, Recommended Practice for Fire Protection for Electric Generating Plants and High Voltage Direct Current Converter Stations,  recommends that transformers with more than 500 gallons (1900 L) of oil be protected by a fire wall rated for 2 hours that is extended 1ft (300 mm) vertically and 2ft (600 mm) horizontally beyond the transformer. In lieu of a fire wall, physical separation is recommended anywhere from 5 to 25 ft (1.5 to 15 m) based on the oil capacity of the transformer.

Fire Protection Systems

NFPA 15, Standard for Water Spray Fixed Systems for Fire Protection, contains requirement on how transformers should be protected using a water spray system. If requires  0.25 gpm/ft2 [10.2 (L/min)/m2] of water to be discharged onto the envelope of the transformer itself and 0.15 gpm/ft2 [6.1 (L/min)/m2]  on the surrounding area for exposure protection. The water supply for such a system needs to be able to keep up with the designed flow rate of the system as well as 250 gpm (946 L/min) for a hose for the duration of 1 hour.

Transformer diagramTransformer diagram

Another important protection feature is a containment pit and drainage system to help retain any spilt transformer oil or discharge from a fixed water spray system. If a containment area is designated, then the fire wall should at least extend to the edge of that area.

Since lightning is a potential ignition source for a transformer fire lightning protection should also be provided. For more information on how lightning protection works see NFPA 780, Standard for the Installation of Lightning Protection Systems.

Transformer failures can be extremely dangerous but with the right precautions in place fires can be controlled to limit damage to the surrounding components, minimize plant downtime and improve survivability of plant staff. There is a lot more that goes into panning and designing a safe transformer installation, but this addresses the main concepts and ideas. For more information on fire protection recommendation for power generating plants check out NFPA 850, Recommended Practice for Fire Protection for Electric Generating Plants and High Voltage Direct Current Converter Stations.

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Brian O'Connor
Technical Services Engineer , passionate about all things fire protection.

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