How do you tackle fire risk in electricity substations?

Louise Smyth

The risk of a fire breaking out at an electricity substation is thankfully low, but when they do happen the impact can be catastrophic. A fire or explosion can pose a danger to the lives of those working for utility and emergency services, as well as to the general public. It can also severely affect power supply to customers, and impact the utility company’s revenue and reputation.

In February 2018, a fire at a substation in Upton Warren, Worcestershire, left a man in hospital and cut power to some 5,000 homes. In March 2018, firefighters were called to a fire at a substation in Saltburn, North Yorkshire, which left around 22,000 homes without power. And a fire at a substation in Leicester’s city centre in April 2018 caused a power failure affecting 45,000 homes and businesses.

Function of substations

There are over 400,000 substations of varying sizes in the UK, ranging from National Grid substations where electricity is transformed down to 132kV, to ‘final distribution’ substations that change electricity from 11kV to the 230V that we use in homes and offices.

Substations are located in both urban and rural areas and always carry a distinctive yellow “Danger of Death ­ Keep Out” sign.

The structural design of the substation, the maintenance of the building and daily operation of the facility are all crucial factors in maintaining safety.

Why accidents happen

Malfunctions in substations can occur for a number of reasons, such as a power surge, component failure, thunderstorms, floods, damage caused by rodents, or malicious attack.

Any kind of damage or fault inside a substation can lead to sparks or an increase in temperature that can ignite a fire. Because of the high levels of energy, once fire takes hold in a substation, it has the potential to cause a huge amount of damage, even travelling along cables and causing secondary fires at nearby substations.  

Neighbouring residential and commercial properties are under threat if the fire cannot be quickly contained, and smoke can cause breathing difficulties across a wide area.

Ensuring safety

All electricity substations are subject to strict safety standards and regulations, aimed at protecting the facility from potential hazards. The Electricity Safety, Quality and Continuity Regulations 2002 require substation owners to comply with a number of safety measures. These include ensuring that buildings are properly enclosed; that live equipment is suitably enclosed; that safety signs are visible; and that all reasonable precautions are taken to minimise the risk of fire associated with the equipment.

It goes without saying that engaging the services of a professional fire safety company is essential for utility companies running substations. “A fire risk assessment will pinpoint potential hazards during the inspection process and raise any issues to ensure full compliance with the law,” says Harry Woodage from fire safety experts Allsaved.

“Depending on the size and location of the substation, this may involve installing or updating the latest fire detection and fire extinguishing and suppressing equipment.

“We work with leading UK energy suppliers to ensure their electricity substations meet all safety standards. For example, we’re very proud of the app our technology experts have developed. The app acts as a fire risk assessment tool that’s tailored specifically to this sector, enabling engineers to fill out detailed reports on-site using a streamlined app.” 

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