As a company that began in the gas detection business in the mid 1990s, we are often asked how things are different now than two decades ago. The anticipated answer is “quite a bit.”
That’s a fair expectation given that in 1995 most people were not online, 4 megabytes of memory on a computer hard drive was considered sufficient and a cellphone was, to many, a luxury. But while it is safe to say advances in gas detection equipment have not come as far as computers and cellphones, the technology has become more sophisticated and the core elements are more efficient, easier to use, and more reliable.
So, while it is true that systems have greatly improved, the core part of a gas detection system is still essentially intact. Many systems essentially include: “Plug-and-Play” field-replaceable sensors including (PID and Infrared), integral sampling pumps with strong sample draw capabilities, up to six gases monitored simultaneously, detecting high or low ppm levels (0-50 & 0-2,000) of VOC gases; percent volume capability for combustible detection using a thermal conductivity (TC) sensor.
In the early 2000s, the focus was on size. Smaller was better. In the past few years, the focus has been more on ease-of- use and durability. Today’s detection units are built to last. Yet there is one improvement on the horizon that will be a game-changer for everyone from facilities managers to DPW workers, firefighters to wastewater management professionals: wireless detection.
Gas detection systems with a wireless connection can report directly back to a home office or command post miles away at the first sign of trouble. So, if you have a worker on a job in a confined space, they can wear a wireless detection unit the size of a cellphone and transmit conditions back to headquarters (this is to comply with OSHA regulations for “Confined Space Entry” as well as your organization’s S.O.P. that an “Entrant” into a “Permit Required Confined Space” has an “Attendant, and reading must be “continuously monitored”). This gives them the ability to check gas levels while on the job and the security of knowing that someone back at headquarters has access to the same readings.
Now, compare the efficiency of a wireless system to a more traditional gas detection system. In that same scenario – personnel working in confined spaces – it requires at least one worker to be stationed at the opening of the confined space or hole and monitoring gas levels. If there was a problem, the worker stationed at the entrance would need to signal his or her co-worker of potential problems. The time it would take for the co-worker to receive the signal (assuming he/she receives it on the first attempt) and call 911 to dispatch emergency personnel to the scene could cost valuable minutes for response, critical to life and safety.
With a wireless connection, more eyes can monitor confined space work. At the same time, the safety of the confined space worker improves should something go awry because of real-time detection. Eventually, you will see the alarm condition sent directly to the emergency response agency very much like a fire alarm rings to the local fire department. This will save lives by reducing the response time to an incident.
Wireless devices have also become an integral part of the homeland security efforts. For many years now, security personnel have been equipped with wireless gas detectors to ensure the safety of tens of thousands at sporting events, concerts, political conventions, the Olympics, etc., all quietly behind the scenes.
The advances in gas detection equipment have made detection more efficient, but it has not eliminated the need for periodic maintenance and 24/7 monitoring. Simply put, all gas detection should be tested at an absolute minimum of every 90 days (always following the manufacturer’s requirements as well as compliance with all local and federal agencies) to make sure they are still accurately calibrated and responding correctly and that all of the target gases are being detected. Those tests should be done with actual gases traceable to the “National Institute of Standards and Testing” (NIST) to ensure accuracy and protection from liability.
Unfortunately, many building owners and facility managers believe the investment in a gas detection system to be sufficient, or have been told it is sufficient once installed just to have it on their properties. To a degree, you can understand that perspective. A gas detection system is not a small investment. With the installation for a single point of gas detection, such as oxygen or carbon monoxide, the cost for a unit can average about $1,000. Adding a maintenance contract for an established or newer gas system might seem like a luxury. It is absolutely not.
Some facilities managers and business owners go by the mantra that if the gas detection system doesn’t detect anything then nothing is wrong. Unfortunately, no one can know a gas detection system is working properly unless it is tested with the appropriate gases. Since most people do not intentionally have those gases on them in a safe form to test their system, there’s no way for them to know if the system is actually reading gas.
Consequently, by not having a routine maintenance system in place, you can put the health and safety of occupants of your building at risk if your gas detection equipment is not functioning properly. And when it comes to exposure to gases, it only takes one incident to put lives in jeopardy and open up your organization to tremendous liability. In recent years, there have been several fatalities in the U.S. where gas detection equipment failed.
The flip side to gas detection equipment not detecting potential dangerous gases is a system that is oversensitive and produces false alarms. This is something that occurs in many facilities. It is not unusual for a mis-calibrated or infrequently tested detection system to be set off. This can trigger a very costly chain of events – chaos in the immediate vicinity, emergency personnel dispatched to the scene, evacuation of staff and customers, etc.
Bottom line, a false alarm alone can cost thousands of dollars in lost business, lost man hours and the price of emergency personnel dispersed to the site – not to mention the bad publicity and lost confidence of the community. And with any false alarm, there always exists the possibility that you are taking emergency personnel away from a real emergency where their services are needed.
When you compare the cost of an annual maintenance plan – roughly $1,000 – with the thousands of dollars associated with a wrongful death or liability lawsuit, the investment in a maintenance and monitoring program makes all the sense in the world. Yet it’s a conservative estimate that of the buildings that have gas detection systems on their premises, perhaps only 10 percent have an active maintenance program with testing conducted on a quarterly basis.
“When it comes to exposure to gases, it only takes one incident to put lives in jeopardy and open up your organization to tremendous liability. In recent years, there have been several fatalities ... where gas detection equipment failed.”
While that may sound rather bleak on the surface, it’s a number that has actually gone up over the course of the past few years. Much of that has to do with insurance. With an increased focus on risk management for commercial clients, insurance companies have not only mandated gas detection equipment be installed, but have offered incentives for maintenance and monitoring contracts with those systems. This is a trend that is likely to continue.
The safety of those who work on and visit your property is perhaps the most important of those responsibilities. You can run a smooth and efficient operation for 20 years with little fanfare. One incident with your gas detection equipment system can mar that reputation. Installing a state-of-the-art gas detection system with regular maintenance and monitoring buys you peace of mind that you can’t put a price tag on. Perhaps the best trend in gas detection equipment is that more and more building owners are choosing preventative maintenance over the bottom line.
John V. Carvalho III is the president of Apollo Safety, Inc.