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The Basics of Flameproof Electric Control Panels: What You Need to Know

  •  Hemant N. Mudrale
  • 10 Dec

You’ll find flameproof electric control panels in any industrial facility that uses open flames, hot liquids, or gaseous fuels as a power source. In other words, just about every place where heat is the primary output instead of an input. If you work in the process industries — chemical plants, refineries, petrochemical terminals, paper mills and natural gas processing plants — you know all about flameproof control panels. They’re standard equipment on nearly every piece of heavy machinery inside these buildings. The role of a flameproof panel is to prevent ignition from external sources and help operators address internal fires as quickly as possible. Making sure the panel is flameproof is one of the first steps when designing new machinery or updating existing units to meet current safety codes, standards and regulations.

What is a Flameproof Panel?

A flameproof panel is a type of electrical switchboard used in industrial settings. They’re designed to withstand the harsh environmental conditions inside process plants, including direct exposure to flames, extreme temperatures and other elements that would destroy a traditional switchboard. Flameproof control panels often have multiple circuit breakers that protect the wiring inside the panel against high-heat overloads. In some cases, a control panel will include a trip switch that cuts power to the whole machine if temperatures inside the panel reach a certain level. Flameproof panels are designed to protect both the operators who work with the machine and the people around it. Workers might get too close to the machine and risk getting injured by the moving parts. Flames that are too close to the machine could catch the control panel on fire, spreading the flames to other parts of the building.

Why Do We Care About Flame Proofing?

The main reason to care about flameproof control panels is to prevent fires. It’s not uncommon for sparks from a machine or a short circuit to ignite the surrounding material, especially if it’s flammable. Let’s say you have a chemical plant that uses natural gas as a fuel source. If a spark ignites the gas and it’s not immediately extinguished, the resulting fire can spread quickly. Even worse, natural gas is often mixed with hydrogen, which is highly flammable and explosive. When an internal fire burns, it produces carbon monoxide, a toxic gas that can be deadly if it builds up inside the building. Flameproof control panels have breakers that trip when they reach a certain temperature, which can help prevent fires from growing or spreading.

What Makes a Panel Flameproof?

There are a few characteristics that make a switchboard flameproof. Flameproof circuits have special materials inside them — usually copper, special alloy metals and/or high-heat-resistant plastics. They’re usually insulated with materials that won’t catch fire, like mineral oil or silicone. Flameproof circuit breakers are designed to trip as soon as they hit a certain temperature, preventing a short circuit from overheating the rest of the wiring. Flameproof panels are usually made of non-flammable materials, like stainless steel. They have special designs that provide more protection against the heat inside the building, including ventilation and reinforced walls. The panel itself should be rated as Class I, Division 1, Groups A and B and installed in a dedicated space with fire-resistant materials. Most panels have a built-in fire suppression system, as well.

Benefits of Flameproof Electric Control Panels

First and foremost, flameproof control panels are safer than non-FP equipment. There are fewer opportunities for sparks to ignite combustible materials, and the circuit breakers will trip if temperatures get too high. This can prevent fires and reduce the risk of an explosion. If someone does manage to start a fire, the panel is designed to prevent it from spreading. The materials used inside the panel are less flammable than cardboard or wood, and the wiring and breakers are less likely to catch fire. Flameproof control panels can also be designed to withstand extreme temperatures. This is important during the initial installation and maintenance of the machine. When you have to replace or fix wiring, the heat inside the building can be extreme. Flameproof panels are also easier to clean and maintain than traditional panels. They’re often more durable, so they can survive the occasional cleaning with a pressure washer.

Drawbacks of FP Equipment

There are a few drawbacks to flameproof control panels. Because of their extreme construction, they tend to be more expensive than traditional panels. They’re also heavier and take up more space, which can be an issue in very small or crowded areas. Flameproof panels are also not 100% foolproof. You still need to take precautions against short circuits and internal fires, and you should still keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Also, if you have an open-air panel in an extremely dirty or sandy area, dirt may end up getting inside the breakers. In a dirty and sandy environment, you might want to go with a non-FP panel that has a cover and/or a filter to prevent this from happening.

Is There Anything Else to Know?

There are a few other things to know about flameproof control panels. Flameproof doesn’t mean explosion-proof — the equipment is still susceptible to pressure buildups that can cause explosions. Also, keep in mind that flameproof panels often cost more than the non-FP versions. Make sure you account for these costs when you’re calculating the total cost of your project. To help ensure your investment is protected, make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installation, maintenance and cleaning. Lastly, don’t forget about your electrical service panel. You may need to make it flameproof if you’re running electricity in a dangerous environment, such as a chemical facility.

Conclusion

The basics of flameproof electric control panels are pretty straightforward: they’re designed to withstand extreme heat and prevent fires. They’re a must-have in any industrial setting that uses open flames, hot liquids or gaseous fuels as a power source. If you work in an industrial facility, chances are you’ve come across a flameproof panel. They’re common in chemical plants, refineries, petrochemical terminals, paper mills and natural gas processing plants. They’re more expensive than traditional panels, but they’re worth the investment. Flameproof panels are safer and easier to clean and maintain than non-FP equipment.