Stepping up fire detection and prevention to mitigate power backup system risks

Johannesburg, 18 Jun 2024
Vairaag Panchoo, National Strategic Business Development Manager, ISF SFP and Fernando Antunes, MD, ISF SFP.
Vairaag Panchoo, National Strategic Business Development Manager, ISF SFP and Fernando Antunes, MD, ISF SFP.

South African commercial and residential customers are not protecting themselves properly from the risks associated with backup generator and battery fires.

This is according to executives at ISF SFP, the fire and security systems integrators within the ISF Group – a diversified integrated engineering, procurement, construction and management (EPCM) company.

ISF SFP Managing Director Fernando Antunes says South Africa’s industrial sector is relatively mature in terms of fire detection and suppression standards. “For example, in mines where heavy vehicles are critical workhorses worth millions of rands, the importance of vehicle fire suppression is well understood. However, the commercial and residential markets are lagging.”

Vairaag Panchoo, National Strategic Business Development Manager at ISF SFP, says there is a clear divide between industries that prioritise fire safety and prevention and the majority who see it as a grudge purchase. “Many only attend to it because they must comply with standards, codes and insurance dictates. They don’t understand what the risk mitigation intent is and what the proper solutions are, so many fall into the trap of looking at the cheapest products, and projects are awarded to non-certified suppliers, installers and integrators.”

He adds that many organisations also fail to implement suitable solutions for each type of risk mitigation. “You may need different types of detection and prevention systems on one site – it’s not a one-shoe-fits-all scenario,” Panchoo says.

ISF SFP highlights a key area for fire detection and suppression – backup power and batteries.

Antunes explains: “Fires are starting in generators and batteries that weren’t designed to run continuously, and which must now be used several times a day during load-shedding. We have seen organisations lose millions of rands due to generators catching fire and setting the building alight. It is important to note that there are many factors at play when it comes to fire detection and suppression in this environment: for example, whether they are open volume or enclosed generators, and the wind factor. There are fire detection and suppression systems for all types of generators, but the right systems must be engineered for each use case and they must be properly installed.”

Panchoo says: “The problem comes in where a product is sold as a ‘single shot bullet’ solving everything. A water misting system may not be effective on an operating generator, for instance, because the airflow will blow the water particles away. And it’s not just about putting out the fire, it’s also about preventing re-ignition. In a generator, fuel and oil leaks and hot surfaces are triggers for re-ignition, so you need a system that puts out the fire, prevents re-ignition and cools the generator.”

Lithium-ion batteries are another focus area for ISF SFP. Panchoo says: “Manufacturers are looking at integrating protection systems into batteries, but for existing batteries, once a fire starts in a typical battery storage facility, you can’t easily extinguish it, so there’s a tendency to let it burn to destruction. Some vendors market handheld extinguishers for direct application, but while a handheld might work on a laptop or electric vehicle battery, direct application isn’t always possible – or safe – in high-density batteries in racks and cabinets. You need an integrated early warning and preventative approach rather than a reactive approach for lithium-ion batteries, and this is something we are taking to market.”

ISF SFP says commercial and residential markets should step up their efforts to properly mitigate fire risk by engaging with specialists, and ensuring their fire detection and suppression systems are properly engineered and compliant.