Computers as a Fire Hazard and the Benefits of Industrial Computer Protection
Computers are now part and parcel of every business and allow us to perform tasks in a fraction of the time than it would have done years before. However, there are downsides and while most IT systems can seem innocuous, in certain environments they can be a potential hazard.
A spark is normally the cause for most explosions, especially when electronic equipment is used in a volatile environment. Wherever a circuit is broken or near to another conductor, it causes a short and electric currents can arc through the air, igniting any nearby combustibles.
At the end of 2005, an electrical fault at one of the world's leading computer research centres at the University of Southampton; started a fire that would lead to £50 million-worth of damage. It took over a hundred firefighters ten hours to bring the eventual blaze under control and whilst it was fortunate that there were no fatalities, 300 staff and research students found they had nowhere to work. The University have just reopened in a new £70 million building but other companies are not as fortunate - nearly half of all businesses that are closed by a fire never reopen and a third of those that do so, still fail in the following three years.
The law under EU's ATEX directive does order companies to identify any potential hazardous areas into zones and all computer equipment has to be able to operate safely in those environments. Although many of these areas are easily identifiable such as where liquid fuels, flammable gases and explosives are stored; explosions and fires can also occur under less obvious conditions, such as where there is a lot of dust or particles suspended in the air. Even areas not deemed hazardous can be at risk from malfunctioning computer equipment, particularly when machines are left unattended or switched on for long periods of time. Like the computer monitor at the newspaper office in Virginia, that was left on overnight and sparked. Whilst not in a particular hazardous area the amount of newspaper lying around provided enough fuel to completely gut the offices of the Carolina Coast and Virginian-Pilot newspapers destroying decades worth of records.
Of course there have always been solutions to these problems, you can makes sure the area is swept clean every night but can you be sure a monitor hasn't been left on and a pile of papers left nearby? Of course specially designed, intrinsically safe computers are widely used in highly hazardous areas, but these are expensive particularly in areas where explosions are deemed unlikely and there is a need for several machines. While it is certainly better to be safe than sorry the cost can be crippling, especially if you have to keep upgrading your IT.
However, lower-priced alternatives to the conventional intrinsically safe enclosure and air-purged computer systems exist and enables you to use existing PCs and monitors and provides protection specifically in ATEX Workplace Directive Zone 2, or areas where explosions, although deemed unlikely, could briefly occur. This allows companies the freedom to keep using their conventional IT and replace and upgrade it as necessary - whilst still keeping the same enclosure. It also enables piece of mind for those machines that although not in specific hazardous areas are often left unattended.