A claims professional’s guide to technical equipment recovery following a fire
By Amir Rubin
Following a fire loss, claims professionals focus on restoring productivity, minimizing business interruption, and satisfying the needs of their policyholders. With respect to technical equipment restoration, minutes and hours are critical. The first few hours, especially, can be crucial to the impacted equipment’s future reliability. By understanding the different types of damage that technical equipment can sustain following fires, claims professionals can better guide their policyholders on minimizing downtime and getting businesses back up and running.
Chemicals deposited on equipment after a fire or combustion incident can adversely affect electrical, electronic, and mechanical components, which, again, makes the first few hours after the incident crucial to ensuring the reliability of the equipment. Time is of the essence, and speed is vital at all stages of the damage-control process. Careful attention must be given to the unique characteristics of business-critical electronic and electrical equipment.
How Fires Affect Equipment
Fires can affect equipment in three different ways: physical damage, electrical damage, and contamination due to combustion byproduct. Physical damage results from heat causing deformation or melting of plastics, wiring insulation, piping, and other surfaces not designed to endure elevated temperatures. Physically damaged components will often be replaced.
Electrical damage may occur as a result of power fluctuations, power quality (loss of an electrical phase, floating neutral, or grounding), or an abrupt loss of power. Electrical systems and electronic circuitry are susceptible to damage when their supplied voltage and current are outside of the designed parameters. Computerized systems require a graceful shut down in order to avoid software corruption. An abrupt loss of power is the opposite of a graceful shut down.
Combustion byproduct, more commonly referred to as contamination, is caused by residual chemicals following fires, explosions, or combustion events. As chemicals settle onto equipment, they can severely harm electrical, electronic, and mechanical components. However, the effects of this contamination can vary widely based on different factors, including the type of chemical or contaminant present, the amount or concentration of each respective contaminant, the environmental conditions present at the loss location, and the equipment type and materials used in the construction of the equipment.
Visible and Invisible Damage
After a fire-related event, the most visible type of property damage is often soot, which covers the surface. It should be noted that soot consists mostly of carbon, which can be conductive, so it is important not to power up carbon-contaminated equipment as short circuits may occur, resulting in further damage to the equipment.
During a fire or combustion of different types of materials, many different acids may be off-gassed. Acidic particulate, the worst type of contamination, is not immediately visible on the surface of equipment. Depending on the concentrations and level of humidity, this type of contamination will eventually become visible in the form of corrosion, which will erode metals. Even low levels of acidic contamination will increase the probability of failure to a critical level. Unless the contamination is addressed, metal surfaces will continue to deteriorate until they are pitted—an irreversible condition.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a common material used in equipment. PVC that has been involved in a fire will develop a corrosive acid known as hydrochloric acid (HCl). HCl is part of the warm smoke, and, together with humidity, it condenses on cold surfaces. As a result of the pressure from the warm air, it can enter every unsealed area. To put it into perspective, for every one kg PVC that is burned, 1.2 liters of acid develop.
Preparing for Disaster
For certain industries and companies, equipment is usually the largest capital expense. By preparing for disasters ahead of time, businesses can increase the probability of successful equipment restoration and diminish the possibility of business interruption.
While the idea of preparing a disaster plan may seem overwhelming to some equipment owners, an incident that occurs with no plan is in place will cause delays in locating qualified entities to decontaminate, test, repair, and recalibrate the affected items.
There are two steps that equipment owners should take when preparing a disaster plan. The first is to identify all internal stakeholders. Every business will differ in terms of who its stakeholders are, but they typically include employees from risk management, site maintenance, and engineering.
Step two is to locate trusted equipment recovery experts. By identifying the recovery experts ahead of time, no time is wasted when an incident occurs. There are additional steps policyholders can take to detail their preparedness plan even more, but these two steps are key and will significantly contribute to the success of the recovery.
As noted, the first few hours following a fire are critical to preserving equipment and increasing its future reliability. There is no need to wait for decontamination experts to arrive in order to mitigate equipment deterioration. Equipment owners should take simple measures that have proven effective as preservation techniques. These include:
• Do not energize contaminated equipment before it has been deemed safe to do so.
• Power off all uninterruptible power supplies.
• Install dehumidifiers to reduce moisture and stabilize the environment.
• Apply metal preserving compounds designed to stop or slow down corrosion.
Following a loss event, the situation will often be chaotic. It is imperative to get the appropriate experts onsite as quickly as possible to increase the chances of a comprehensive recovery. This is where a disaster-preparedness plan comes to play.
Upon arrival, the recovery expert will assess the situation, which includes identifying and analyzing the consumed contaminants. Furthermore, the expert will take steps to combat corrosion by minimizing a surface’s ability to oxidize. The end goal is to stop equipment deterioration and buy the equipment owner—as well as insurance professionals—time to review policies that are designed to help in these situations.
This process is typically performed rapidly—partly to limit the damage, and partly because interrupted production and downtime can be costly to the equipment owner in terms of lost revenue, lost customers, and costs of possible replacement production.
Environmental deposits accumulate everywhere. In production environments, these deposits can be conductive and can prevent proper heat dissipation, both of which wreak havoc on electrical and electronic components. Such deposits shorten the life expectancy of equipment and increase the risk of failures.
Unplanned emergency repairs and production delays can be costly. Properly maintaining and servicing business-critical equipment is necessary to minimize unplanned production disruptions, increase reliability, and maximize the equipment’s life expectancy. Preventive maintenance is a great investment to discuss with the selected trusted recovery expert.
Fire incidents have the potential to negatively impact a business’ operations. Taking immediate action, and even being proactive before an incident, can significantly increase the chances of successful equipment recovery, which is often a faster, less costly, and more environmentally sustainable solution than replacing equipment.