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Did you know that fire-related deaths in homes have increased by 23.7% since 2011? Not to mention the financial loss—up 83.8% in the same time period. In 2020 alone, an estimated $21.9 billion was lost due to fire. In addition, according to a report from National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), there are over 37,000 industrial and manufacturing fires occurring every year, with an estimated $1.2B of damages, 279 injuries, and 18 deaths.

The U.S. Fire Administration puts out statistics like these every year to illustrate the devastating effects of fires. This is why fire protection systems are so vital to our society. A well-designed system can detect and suppress a fire before it spreads, minimizing damage and allowing time for safe evacuation. It can also prevent the fire from spreading to other areas and causing a much larger fire.

By investing in electrical fire protection for electrical rooms and cabinets, you are not only protecting the equipment but also the people who rely on that equipment. It's an indispensable investment in safety and peace of mind for everyone involved.

So, what are the basic devices to protect from fire in electrical cabinets? Let’s examine some of the most popular suppression systems on the market, their pros and cons, and how you can safeguard electrical cabinets and rooms.

What Are the Different Types of Fire Protection Systems?

Water-based, gaseous, chemical clean agent, foam, and dry chemical suppression systems are some of the more popular types of fire protection. These systems detect and extinguish fires rapidly, minimizing damage and protecting people and property. Let’s examine each one and its suitability for electrical cabinet fire protection.

1. Chemical Clean Agent Suppression Systems

Chemical clean agent suppression systems use a variety of agents to interrupt the chemical reaction that is fueling the fire. The various chemical agents work in different ways to achieve this goal, mainly disrupting the chemical reaction of fire and absorbing heat.

Some common chemical clean agents include:

  • FM-200/HFC227ea, which is a colorless, odorless gas that is non-toxic and non-corrosive. FM-200 works by chemically interfering with the combustion process, effectively removing heat from the fire and reducing the concentration of oxygen in the protected area.
  • 3M™ Novec™ 1230/FK-5-1-12, which is a non-toxic, non-corrosive, and environmentally friendly synthetic organic material. It absorbs heat from a fire, which lowers the temperature and—similar to FM-200— interrupts the combustion process.

One of the primary benefits of chemical clean agent suppression systems is that they are non-conductive and leave no residue, making them ideal for safeguarding sensitive electrical equipment. And unlike some fire suppression systems, FM-200 and FK-5-1-12 are safe to use in human-occupied spaces.

2. Gaseous Suppression Systems

Nitrogen, argon, and carbon dioxide (CO2) are examples of gaseous fire suppression agents. These gases cannot conduct electricity, so there is no need to worry about shock hazards or sensitive equipment damage. Additionally, gaseous suppression systems don’t leave behind any residue, unlike water or foam agents.

Gaseous fire suppression systems operate by displacing the oxygen in the surrounding area, which deprives the fire of the oxygen it requires to continue burning. When using a CO2 fire suppression system requires a high concentration of CO2 to effectively extinguish a fire, which can pose a serious risk to human health and safety. Additionally, the cold shock from the CO2 discharge is in close proximity to electronic components. The discharge cause freeze water vapor in the atmosphere which introduces water into electronics as it warms up again. For this reason, CO2 systems are not ideal for electrical panels.

On the other hand, inert gas fire suppression systems are safe for occupied areas. While they do displace oxygen, the firefighting levels of oxygen displacement is still within the levels permitted for occupiable areas. Oxygen deprivation is an effective way to fight fires involving flammable liquids or gases and electrical fires by suppressing the fire before it has a chance to spread.

3. Water-Based Suppression Systems

Water-based fire suppression systems are the most prevalent and recognizable type of fire protection system, and you may have witnessed their effectiveness in the media or even firsthand. These employ water to douse the fire, decreasing its temperature and quenching the flames. They are best suited for extinguishing fires that involve Class A combustible materials, such as wood, paper, and textiles.

However, water is not a suitable suppression agent for electrical fires, as water can conduct electricity and cause electrocution. It can also cause short circuits or corrosion, leading to irreparable electrical equipment damage.

The National Electrical Code (NEC) recognizes that water-based suppression systems are not ideal for these environments, and include requirements for electrical rooms that encourage facilities to avoid water-based fire suppression systems. For example, the electrical room can only use dry-type electrical equipment, contain no combustible material storage, and it must have a two-hour electrical room fire rating with protection for penetrations.

So, can sprinklers be installed in electrical rooms? Yes, but should electrical rooms be sprinklered? Probably not—especially when there are much more suitable fire suppression systems out there.

4. Powder-Based Suppression Systems

A powder-based suppression system, sometimes called a “dry powder fire extinguisher,” works by discharging a dry chemical agent into the affected area. The power covers the fire, smothering it and preventing it from spreading. The dry chemical agent typically consists of various chemicals, such as ammonium phosphate, sodium bicarbonate, and potassium bicarbonate.

The biggest downside to these systems is the mess they leave behind, not to mention how long it takes to clean up that mess. Dry chemical residue left on surfaces exposed to moisture can also lead to discoloration and dulling of aluminum parts and paint finishes. They can also be corrosive to surfaces that are sensitive to mildly acidic or alkaline materials. To prevent these issues, personnel should promptly clean up any dry chemical residue to avoid moisture contamination.

5. Foam-Based Suppression Systems

Foam-based suppression systems are suitable for fires caused by flammable liquids or chemicals, as they work by smothering the fire with a layer of foam. However, they are not suitable for electrical fires, as the foam can cause electrical shorts and damage electrical equipment. And like water and dry chemicals, foam is always a hassle to clean up afterward.

What Is Required for an Electrical Room?

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets standards for safe electrical room working space in the National Electrical Code (NEC), including specifications for layout, equipment, illumination, security, and more. These electrical room fire protection requirements are designed primarily to protect people against potential hazards during design, installation, and inspection. They also serve to safeguard all the critical devices in these rooms—like switch gears, transformers, and panelboards—that are essential to the operation of buildings and facilities.

NFPA Electrical Room Requirements

The following are some of the key NFPA electrical room requirements to consider. Keep in mind that the NFPA updates these standards regularly, so consult with the latest edition of the NEC to ensure you have the most up-to-date information.

  • Working Space Layout - The NEC has depth, width, and height for electrical working spaces. For example, the width of the area in front of any electrical equipment should be at least equal to the equipment's width or 762 mm (30 in.), whichever is greater. Additionally, the working space must allow for equipment doors or hinged panels to open at least 90 degrees. They also include specifications for areas with limited access, like above lay-in ceilings or in crawl spaces, and how to safely separate high-voltage equipment.
  • Clearing the Working Space - For buildings with limited space, it’s tempting to use an electrical room as storage, but this practice is in violation of the NEC. The working space required for electrical equipment should not be used for storage to prevent accidents and ensure accessibility. If normally-enclosed live parts are exposed for inspection or servicing in a passageway or open space, they should be appropriately guarded to prevent any potential hazards.
  • Working Space Entrances and Exits - The NEC requires at least one entrance of sufficient area for access to and from the working space around electrical equipment. For example, when the doors of electrical cabinets or equipment are open, they should not block access or exit from the working space. They also include minimum distances to and from entrances and exits relative to larger pieces of equipment.
  • Illumination - Proper and reliable illumination is critical for maintaining a safe work environment when operating around electrical equipment installed indoors. Automatic control of illumination is not allowed at all, for example. However, additional lighting outlets are not necessary if the working space is already illuminated by an adjacent light source.
  • Equipment Space - Indoor and outdoor electrical equipment, including switchgear, switchboards, panelboards, and motor control centers, should have a designated space. The code sets out dedicated zone requirements, such as keeping the space free of ducts, piping, leak protection apparatus, or other equipment not belonging to the electrical installation.
  • Security - This section of the NEC clarifies that facilities can still control electrical rooms and cabinets with locks and that this type of security does not deem the area inaccessible.

Not following NEC electrical room requirements can lead to serious consequences, including electrical shock, fire, property damage, injury, and even death. Organizations may also face code violations, fines, and serious legal liability for failure to comply with these standards. Additionally, non-compliant electrical systems may not function properly and cause interruptions in power supply, data transfer, and productivity.

Additional NFPA Resources

NFPA is a U.S.-based international nonprofit organization devoted to eliminating death, injury, property, and economic loss due to fire, electrical, and related hazards. 

  • NFPA 1 (Fire Code)
  • NFPA 101 (Life Safety Code)
  • NFPA 70 (National Electrical Code)
  • NFPA 76 (Standard for the Fire Protection of Telecommunication Facilities)
  • NFPA 2001 (Standard on Clean Agent Fire Extinguishing Systems)

What Type of Fire Suppression System for an Electrical Room Is Best?

The best fire suppression systems for electrical rooms and cabinets use clean agents or gas as the suppressant. As mentioned earlier, this is largely due to the speed and efficiency of these materials, as well as the ease of clean-up since they leave no residue.

What are the three types of fire suppression systems? Various designs exist, but the main ones available today include the following:

  • Single Use Systems - These are the simplest type of suppression designed to protect small-scale electrical application and are not connected to a larger system. An example would be a self-contained tube-style fire suppression system that is an all-in-one product, simplifying fire suppression by combining agent storage, detection, and discharge mechanisms into a single solution. This type of system will only release the suppressing agents at a certain temperature threshold to prevent false alarms.
  • Pre-Engineered Systems - These include a system with a predesigned set of components. This includes tube-based fire suppression systems where the tubing acts as the fire detection mechanism and the suppression agent is stored in cylinders. These systems have the option to be integrated with control panels and alarm systems. They can often be either automatically or manually activated and work well in small spaces. With pre-engineered direct systems, the agent is delivered directly through the burst hole of the fire detection tubing (which forms at a certain temperature threshold), while indirect pre-engineered systems use strategically positioned nozzles to deliver the suppression agent.
  • Engineered Systems - Engineered systems can flood a large electrical room with a clean agent in a few seconds, as they are designed to detect and suppress fires for the unique risks of a particular facility or application. These systems require custom design and engineering to meet the specific needs of the electrical room. They offer the most comprehensive protection but are also the most expensive.

When choosing a fire suppression system for an electrical cabinet or an entire electrical room, it's important to consider the space’s size, the type of equipment being protected, and the level of risk. Ultimately, the goal is to select a system that will effectively suppress any fires that may occur, minimize damage to the equipment, and protect the safety of people working in the room.

Download: Three Levels of Fire Protection for Electrical Cabinets