As a company that began in the gas detection industry 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 MB of memory on a computer hard drive was considered sufficient, and a cell phone was, to many, a luxury. But while it is safe to say the advances are not quite to those levels for gas detection equipment, the technology has become more sophisticated and the core elements of gas detection are more efficient, easier to use, and more reliable, especially when used inside a cleanroom.
The invention of the cleanroom more than 50 years ago by Willis Whitfield has enabled safety and cleanliness in manufacturing, scientific, and pharmaceutical research, and other industries in which small particles or gases in the air can be detrimental to the process. Since that time, safety standards have improved exponentially. With the addition of gas detecting equipment to these cleanrooms, when needed, a level of safety has been achieved unlike those seen during the days of the first cleanrooms decades ago.
The presence of gases such as CO, H2S, and silane, along with explosives and VOCs, inside a cleanroom can mean not only the loss of productivity but the difference between life and death. In the last few years, the technology developed by the gas detection manufacturing industry has vastly improved, which means that the odds of snafus in the detection equipment have decreased. Gas detection equipment is a vital part of the equation because it protects not only a company’s capacity for efficiency, but also the facility itself, and the lives of the people who work within these cleanrooms.
The configuration of the gas detection equipment within the cleanroom is also an important element. Before any gas detection equipment is installed, many factors must be taken into consideration. For example, depending on the gases being used, HEPA filters, air-circulating units, and electrical sources all affect where and how the equipment should be installed. And, of course, federal and state requirements must also be met.
In these controlled environments, equipment maintenance is just as important as the installation and the configuration of the gas detection equipment. The advancement in gas detection equipment has made detection more efficient, but has not eliminated the need for periodic maintenance and 24/7 monitoring. Simply put, all gas detection equipment should be tested 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 correctly 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 Technology (NIST) to ensure accuracy and protection from liability.
Unfortunately, many building owners, facility managers, and laboratory operators feel that the initial investment in a gas detection system is sufficient enough to disregard follow-up. In some cases, they may be told that just having it installed on the property is all that’s needed. To a degree, one can understand that perspective. A gas detection system is not a small investment. With the installation of a single gas detection unit alone averaging $1,000, adding a maintenance contract for a new or newer gas system might seem like a luxury. It is absolutely not.
Some facility managers and business owners go by the mantra that if the gas detection system doesn’t detect anything, then nothing is wrong. (“If it ain’t broke …”) That logic would make sense only if one could be 100 percent sure the system is working properly, which is impossible. You can’t know for sure that a gas detection system is working unless it’s tested with the appropriate gases. Since most people do not intentionally have those gases in their facilities in a safe form to test their system, there is 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 lives of occupants of your building at risk if your gas detection equipment is not functioning properly. And when it comes to exposure of gases, it only takes one incident to put lives in jeopardy and open up your organization to tremendous liability. In fact, in recent years there have been fatalities at facilities in Salem, Mass. and in Connecticut, as well as numerous other states where gas detection equipment has failed.
The cost of false alarms
The flip side to gas detection equipment not detecting potential dangerous gases, particularly in a cleanroom setting, is that some systems may be oversensitive and produce false alarms. This is something that occurs in many facilities; it is not unusual for an infrequent or mis-calibrated detection systems to be set off by ambient gas. This can trigger a very costly chain of events—chaos in the immediate vicinity, emergency personnel dispatched to the scene, evacuation of staff, 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 those directly involved in the situation as well as those who simply just heard about it. 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 all the facilities that have gas detection systems on their premises, perhaps only 10 percent have an active maintenance program with testing being conducted on a quarterly basis.
While that may sound rather bleak on the surface, it’s a number that has actually gone up over 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 that gas detection equipment be installed, but they have offered incentives for maintenance and monitoring contracts with those systems. This is a trend that is likely to continue.
The bottom line is safety
As a facility manager, building owner, or other controlled environment director, your responsibilities are many. The safety of those who work 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. However, one incident with your gas detection equipment and system can mar that reputation. Installing a state-of-the-art gas detection system with regular maintenance and monitoring buys you peace of mind, on which you just can’t put a price tag. Perhaps the best trend in gas detection equipment in controlled environments is that more and more of those in charge are choosing common sense over the bottom line.
John V. Carvalho III is the president of Apollo Safety Inc., located in Fall River, Mass. The company specializes in gas detection products and services for portable and stationary systems. www.gasmonitorinstallation.com
This article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Controlled Environments.