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Choosing a fire suppression system: Long-term approach required

Over the past 18 months, mining companies have been increasingly investing in fire suppression systems and protection systems to safeguard their operations.

According to GRANT WILKINSON, sales director at Alien Systems & Technologies (AST), this is primarily due to a growing reliance on automated systems to protect mining operations. GERARD PETER finds out more.

Wilkinson starts by explaining that COVID-19 lockdown regulations have had an impact on workforce numbers at mines.

Subsequently, companies are turning to increased automation to run their operations. Such systems also need to be protected and this has resulted in an increase in the need for automatic fire detection and extinguishing systems.

At the same time, however, Wilkinson states that it is important to install a system that will benefit the company in the long run. “When purchasing these systems, we encourage mines to look at the technology that will ensure that the system is effective over the next 15 to 20 years.

This ensures that you get real value for money that is not associated with using outdated, less effective technology,” he adds.

Choosing a best fire suppression system

Wilkinson cautions against opting for older spec fire suppression systems.

“For example, some of the control panels contain microchips and electrical components that are being phased out. As a result, a company will have to replace that system in about three to four years’ time because of limited support.”

Notwithstanding the above, it is encouraging to note that mining companies are taking automatic fire detection and extinguishing systems seriously, Wilkinson continues. He points out that 15 to 20 years ago, such systems would have to be retrofitted after a mine had already built significant infrastructure. These days, however, there has been a change in mindset and companies often engage with specialised fire engineering consultants at the beginning of a project.

“Whether it’s for an underground conveyor belt system or a containerised control room, these days we find that mines have already drawn up their fire protection specifications and measures before commencement of construction.”

System must be fit for purpose

One of the key factors that needs to be considered when implementing an automatic fire extinguishing system is ensuring it is ‘fit-for-purpose’. This takes into account the environmental factors as well as what is most likely to cause a fire.

To explain this concept, Wilkinson uses the example of conditions in an iron ore mine.

“While you might think that optical sensing methods like smoke detectors would be your first port of call, these would not be effective in an iron ore mine where the prevalence of red dust could lead to many false alarms. So, in this instance, the fire detectors are not fit-for-purpose. Instead, what is required is cloud chamber sensing technology which can discriminate between fire particles, dust and humidity.”

In addition, an iron ore mining company would also need to ensure that its fire extinguishing system is fit-for-purpose.

“It goes without saying that the old bucket of sand method will not work in this environment. Rather, what is required is an automatic gaseous flooding system like AST’s Pyroshield,” explains Wilkinson.

Pyroshield uses an inert gas mix that is present in the air we breathe. The system will extinguish surface and deep-seated burning fires by lowering the oxygen content below the level that supports combustion without obscuring exit routs or endangering human life. It leaves no residue nor damages the environment in any way.

In the event of a fire, AST will cover the cost to refill a Pyroshield cylinder over the lifetime of the system. Also, the company will conduct a free mandatory hydrostatic pressure test of the system, which is done every 10 years. This is covered under AST’s Lifetime of Free Policy.

New products offer better protection

To ensure that its products are fit-for-purpose, AST continuously undertakes R&D and technology advancement to enhance its offering.

Recently, the company launched the Sigma ZXT fire control panel that features a secure 1 000 event logger board. As a result, if anyone decides to press a button or operate the system or disable it, all of this information will be recorded in the event logger The Sigma ZXT has two 1A extinguisher outputs, thereby allowing it to handle from very small extinguishing systems to the largest automatic extinguishing systems.

AST has completed the field trials of the Sigma ZXT with Kentec and has selected this fire control panel to be used together with its Pyroshield System. The Sigma ZXT can also be used with other fire extinguishing systems.

Another product that the company recently launched is the Cirrus CCD air sampling system, which is well suited for fire detection in mines. It features an onboard touchscreen with a user-friendly interface that makes it easier to determine if there is a fire.

It also provides instructions to the user in the case of a fire. ‘The Cirrus CCD can also be connected via TCP/IP to an ethernet connection, and it can then be viewed remotely from a control room. So, detector readings can be viewed on the person’s computer screen. Also, if there is internet access, it can be viewed remotely anywhere in the world,” states Wilkinson.

Already, Cirrus CCD detectors have been installed in Debswana’s Orapa mine in Botswana where they have replaced laser-based optical air sampling detectors. The Cirrus CCD can easily discriminate between dust and genuine fire particles, thereby making it perfect for conditions at the mine.

In order to ensure that its clients enjoy all the benefits of its solutions, AST offers training on all its products. In addition, the company provides installer and service training to anyone who wants to install and maintain AST products.

“We also have a technical support line where we log in remotely and assist clients who might be experiencing difficulties with our products,” states Wilkinson.

Finally, while there is still some concern about pirate installers using inferior products, Wilkinson believes that mining companies are becoming more aware of the dangers of going this route. He points out that there have been health and safety incidents on mines where pirates have been operating and have put people’s lives at risk.

“This has raised the alarm and now companies are being a lot more careful by ensuring that automatic fire extinguishing systems comprise genuine parts and are installed by competent people,” concludes Wilkinson.

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