A spotlight on the safety elements of the AS/NZS 61439 standard

Eaton Electrical (Australia) Pty Ltd

By Nick Rabba, Engineering Manager, LVA, CPC
Tuesday, 25 May, 2021

A spotlight on the safety elements of the AS/NZS 61439 standard

The long-awaited AS/NZS 61439 standard was mandated on 24 May 2021, meaning all switchboard builders and electrical contractors across Australia and New Zealand must now comply with the new series of standards for low-voltage switchgear and control gear assemblies.

The much-anticipated industry mandate introduces major safety benefits, such as fault containment, that will provide more safety to the operator and peace of mind to the end customer, and sustain equipment in the long run.

The dangers of arc fault and risks of downtime

Keeping a continuous supply of electrical power running through power-critical commercial buildings such as process plants, hospitals and factories is today a non-negotiable.

Delivering reliable power in these buildings is dependent on the low-voltage distribution panels that sit at the core of the electrical installation. The demands placed on these panels, particularly as operations and infrastructure expand over time, leaves them vulnerable to arc faults.

An arc fault within an electrical distribution panel is a high power discharge of electricity between two or more conductors. A major build-up of pressure within the panel discharge translates into heat, which can break down the wire's insulation and possibly trigger an electrical fire. An explosion of this kind sends components shooting through the air, destroying the installation and threatening the life of anyone nearby — which in many cases is the switchboard builder themselves. In fact, recent statistics have found that more than 2000 people are admitted to burn centres with severe arc-flash burns each year.

An extreme power incident brought on by an arc fault can last days or even weeks, leaving organisations and commercial buildings alike to suffer the rising cost of downtime and recovery. Commercial buildings with critical power needs are especially vulnerable to power failures where the continuity of power supply is vital. Valuable products may need to be destroyed in the case of a sudden loss of power during an industrial process, plus, there could be detrimental environmental outcomes too, if hazardous substances or materials need urgent disposal.

Research from Eaton has estimated that for a typical food industry plant, the cost of production downtime alone could escalate to the tens of thousands of dollars in 24 hours. It’s also worth noting that a typical replacement cost for a panel bears a hefty price tag worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the actual process of designing, manufacturing and installing a replacement can take up to six weeks. During that time, of course, the facility is effectively out of action.

Ensuring safety above the standard

Unfortunately, electrical distribution panels can be easily overlooked in the context safety analysis for commercial building infrastructures, despite the dangers arc faults being present. While the mandate is indeed a positive step towards increasing the level of switchboard safety, on its own, it doesn’t necessarily go as far as it could. For business leaders, going above and beyond the minimum safety standards as specified by AS/NZS 61439 is critical to ensuring longevity in operator, equipment and customer safety.

Indeed, a higher level of safety above the standard can be achieved with the implementation of new, state-of-the-art technology. Circuit protection and control products, such as Eaton’s xEnergy solution, are the best tools available to promote fault containment and type-tested assembly, which will inevitably protect both individuals and businesses from the dangers of arc faults. It exceeds the safety requirements for the AS/NZS 61439 and is a licensable system, providing maximum protection for people and equipment either in parts as an assembly licence or as a local manufacturing licence.

To maximise safety, there are two effective strategies that can be deployed in switchboards. Firstly, it’s critical to monitor for unusual temperature rises that could indicate an imminent fault. Secondly, in the occurrence of an arc fault, the event must be identified in real time in order to promptly shut down the switchgear and minimise damage to the panel itself, and also any connected equipment.

Historically, the use of thermal imaging in temperature monitoring provides a limited snapshot that doesn’t necessarily cover all of the main areas of the panel, including the crucial bus bars in some cases. However, newer technology to the market has the ability to continuously monitor temperature trends at critical points and send data wirelessly to a separate controller. This enables engineers to efficiently analyse heat levels of a selected period of time and conduct further investigations or preventive maintenance work accordingly.

Today’s compliancy for tomorrow’s benefit

Ensuring complete compliance and investing into the right technologies can indeed accelerate a business’s scalability. For organisations looking to expand now or in the future, there’s zero disruption to the process of extending or refurbishing switchboards. With switchboards already standardised and type-tested as per the mandate, they can be purchased as required, instead of all at once — providing a cost-saving opportunity to organisations.

The AS/NZS 61439 mandate welcomes a newfound focus on safety for switchboard builders and vital equipment that keep the wheels churning of today’s organisations and power-critical commercial buildings across Australia and New Zealand. Going above and beyond the standard will provide further safety to the operator and ensure a sustainable, scalable infrastructure.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/kwanchaift

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