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Wind turbines are multi-million dollar pieces of equipment with sensitive electronics, and from time to time, employees working inside and outside the turbine. In the case of a fire starting in the wind turbine, a fire suppression system can prevent the risk of fire loss in your turbines, but only if properly designed and with a suitable fire suppression agent. Deciding on the best fire suppression agent is important in order to protect your equipment, employees, and the environment.

At Firetrace, we have been designing fire suppression systems for wind turbines for over 13 years, and our experts have put in countless hours evaluating fire suppression agents for wind turbines. We’ll break down the common agents used in wind turbines and evaluate them on the five most important categories.

What are the Main Fire Suppression Agents Used in Wind Turbines?

Clean Agents – A clean agent is a chemical or inert gas that is electrically non-conductive, does not leave a residue upon evaporation, and is safe in occupied spaces. These systems are effective at fighting fires and are environmentally friendly. Firetrace recommends using a clean agent, like Novec™ 1230, in wind turbine applications in order to successfully suppress fires and protect equipment and employees.

Inert Gases – An inert gas fire suppression agent is a gas that does not undergo chemical reactions with a fire. Inert gases work by reducing the amount of oxygen available to the fire but typically keeps the oxygen levels high enough to be safe for employees to be around. Inert gases are safe for equipment and do not contribute to damaging the ozone layer. Because they have different properties, when we say “clean agent,” we are referring to chemical clean agents and “inert gases” as inert gas clean agents.

Foams – Foams are large soapy-looking materials that suppress fires by smothering fires to cool the fire and separate the fire from the fuel source. Foams are great at suppressing fires because of their smothering ability. However, suppressing a fire within a nacelle, a foam system would require significant cleanup and is a threat to employees. On top of the difficult cleanup, foams can leave a residue that can wear away at sensitive electronics over time.

Aerosols – An aerosol is a collection of solid or liquid particles suspended in a gas. Aerosols are used in fire suppression because the particles can cool flames by absorbing heat and disrupting fire chain reactions. The materials in aerosol fire suppression systems can contain hazardous materials that are dangerous to inhale and can create visual impairment making it difficult to evacuate the affected area.

Special Mention: ABC Dry Chemical – ABC dry chemical is a common component of handheld fire extinguishers and is used in many applications because it is inexpensive to purchase. However, ABC dry chemical is messy and corrosive to metals and electronics. While ABC dry chemical can be found in low-price alternatives like fire balls, this agent's corrosive nature will damage sensitive electronics to the point they will likely need to be replaced. The replacement costs far outweigh the savings gained from using ABC dry chemical.

What Features are Important for a Fire Suppression Agent?

There are five important features to keep in mind when choosing a fire suppression agent for a wind turbine.

1. Effectiveness in Fighting Fires Quickly

When a fire starts, it doesn’t take very long for it to grow to dangerous levels.This is especially true if it is energized and/or occurs around flammable material, like a fiberglass nacelle. As a fire continues without suppression, the higher your risk of damage to the turbine. The best system designs and agents can suppress fires in under 10 seconds. Other options can suppress fires at 60 seconds.

Best Options
  • Clean Agents
  • Foam
Less Effective Options
  • Aerosol
  • Inert Gas

2. Amount of Required Cleanup

One feature of fire suppression agents that doesn’t get talked about as much is the cleanup required after release. If you choose an agent that leaves a residue, you will end up using valuable resources to clean up the turbine and get the remaining agent out of every crevice to ensure. Every additional day of downtime is thousands of dollars in lost revenue and labor costs.

Best Options
  • Clean Agents
  • Inert Gas
Less Effective Options
  • Aerosol
  • Foam

Clean agents and inert gases are the ideal agents in terms of cleanup because they leave no residue after they suppress a fire. Both aerosols and foams leave a layer of suppressant agent on internal components that can be difficult to clean, especially within the confined space of a wind turbine. 

3. Safe for Equipment

The cleanup and safety of equipment can be interdependent. Some fire suppression agents are corrosive and can damage equipment over time. If your sensitive electronics are damaged and must be replaced because of the suppressant agent, it reduces the suppression system's appeal.

The best agents in terms of equipment safety are clean agents and inert gases and have no residue left behind, and are electrically non-conductive. You can even submerge running electronics in a bath of a clean agent, like Novec™ 1230, and it will not be affected.

Best Options
  • Clean Agents
  • Inert Gas
Less Effective Options
  • Aerosol
  • Foam

Aerosols and foams can contain corrosive particles that, when left uncleaned, can wear away at electronics over time. You don't want to have to replace a control cabinet and have additional downtime after recovering from a fire event.

Special Mention: Dry Chemical Fire Balls
Fire balls are messy to clean up because the powder particles settle in every crevice inside the turbine. The major downside with ABC dry chemical is the corrosive effects on metal and sensitive electronics over time. 

4. Safe for Employee Exposure

Ask any operations and maintenance company, and they will tell you employee safety is a priority. Nobody wants to see one of their employees hurt, and that can be why fire suppression systems are installed in the first place. However, if you use an agent that is unsafe for human exposure, then you could be putting your people in harm’s way. It’s crucial to choose an agent that employees will be safe around if exposed. Wind turbines cannot always be assumed to be unoccupied.

Best Options
  • Clean agents
  • Inert Gas
Less Effective Options
  • Aerosol
  • Foam

Clean agents and inert gases are generally safe in occupied spaces, while aerosols and foams are not as safe. In fact, there are recent incidents where aerosol fire suppression systems have caused fatalities. Foams that contain fluorine can accumulate in the body and lead to a risk of certain cancers over time.

If you do choose an agent that is considered hazardous, like an aerosol, you will need to create and train employees on lockout and evacuation safety procedures to manage the risks of suffocation from the suppression agent.

5. Environmentally Friendly

Wind turbines reduce the amount of harmful emissions released into the atmosphere as we move away from fossil fuels as a primary energy source. When it comes to protecting your wind turbine from fire, another consideration is if the fire suppression agent would have a negative impact on the environment.

The two important metrics for measuring environmental safety are Ozone Depletion Potential and Global Warming Potential.

Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) is how damaging a gas is to the ozone layer compared to CFC-11, a chlorofluorocarbon. The closer an ODP to 0, the better. A gas with an ODP of 0 has no effect on stratospheric ozone.

Global Warming Potential (GWP) is how likely an agent is to absorb heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. The reference for this metric is carbon dioxide, so it has a GWP of 1. For reference, chlorofluorocarbons can have GWPs in the thousands or tens of thousands.

Best Options
  • Clean Agents
  • Inert Gas
  • Aerosol
Less Effective Options
  • Foam

Summary:

In summary, there is a clear winner when it comes to which fire suppressant agent to use in a wind turbine.  Below are the rankings:

  1. Clean Agents
  2. Inert Gas
  3. Foam
  4. Aerosol
  5. ABC Dry Chemical

Clean agents, like Novec™ 1230, offer the best combination of effectiveness, safety, and ease of cleanup when protecting your wind turbines.

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