When a piece of equipment is exposed to water and therefore experiences a contamination-related loss, a process to ensure that the impacted mechanical and electrical assemblies are properly cared for should ensue immediately. The goal is to recondition the equipment properly and warrant that it is restored to its pre-loss condition. Improper reconditioning techniques, in addition to the use of improper cleaning agents, or attempting to recondition equipment with untrained or undertrained technicians, can result in damage that is not loss related.
A case study: ultrasonic cleaning
Consider the following example. Ultrasonic cleaning is a popular method of removing contaminants. The cleaning process utilizes a machine that emits high-frequency sound waves into a liquid bath filled with a cleaning solution. This process creates billions of tiny bubbles that pop. The implosion of the bubbles when they contact a surface causes contaminants to dislodge — a process known as cavitation. For electronic circuit boards that can withstand this process, this is a good option to clean very dense or complex boards that are populated with many components, because the tiny bubbles can reach every bit of exposed surface. Ultrasonic cleaners are an excellent option for rigid metal parts, such as machine tooling, dies and engine parts.
Some manufacturers avoid the ultrasonic cleaning method because of the high frequencies and their potential to damage sensitive components or connections. Components that cannot withstand high frequencies tend to crack. As such, manufacturers that do use this method ensure that all soldered components can in fact tolerate exposure to a high vibration environment.
Following a disaster event, ultrasonic cleaners should not be utilized to address contaminated electronic assemblies. As a result of a justified rush to restore equipment to a pre-loss condition and to minimize business interruption, equipment restoration companies simply do not have time to thoroughly research if circuit boards were manufactured to withstand the harsh ultrasonic environment. Given the range of electronic assemblies found in a commercial business setting and considering that each assembly may contain multiple circuit boards, ultrasonic cleaners should not be considered an option for electronics post loss (although utilized for rigid metal parts, as noted).
The National Electric Manufacturers Association (NEMA), a trusted trade association that represents manufacturers of electrical equipment/supplies, developed standards — and specifically, a document of guidelines titled, “Evaluating water-damaged electrical equipment” —that serves as a reference for recommended action post water exposure. According to NEMA’s guidelines, by utilizing properly trained professionals and employing appropriate cleaning agents, there is a clear path forward to restore some items to their pre-loss condition.
Proper equipment preservation
When a loss occurs, the first step is to confirm that equipment is powered off. If it isn’t, engage the appropriate personnel that can gracefully power off and disconnect the equipment from utility power and all other energy sources, including solar power or generators. Water-exposed electrical/electronic equipment should never be powered on, as it increases the risk of electrical damage.
If equipment preservation best practices are not employed, additional risks will follow. An assessment may reinforce the need to move equipment to a more suitable environment. However, before doing so — for documentation purposes — record and label the equipment with the manufacturer, model number, serial number and original location of each item.
Two important factors are the temperature and relative humidity (RH) of the equipment’s storage facility. For optimum preservation post-loss, it is recommended to maintain the RH in affected areas between 45% and 55%; any lower could result in damage to electronics caused by static electricity, and any higher may not sufficiently prevent surface rusting. Proper humidity levels can be achieved by deploying dehumidifiers or fans. Temperature in affected areas should be kept cool — below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
NEMA suggests engaging an equipment service vendor or a professional decontamination specialist to remove water from within the equipment (and underneath raised flooring).
Certain metals that equipment is comprised of, such as those that do not have a natural barrier from air or are unpainted, are susceptible to rusting if left exposed. Those metals should be treated with a rust inhibitor such as ZEPRESERVE moisture displacer (although be sure not to spray inhibiting lubricants on circuit boards). Additionally, obtain vapor phase corrosion inhibitors (VpCIs) and place them inside electronic control panels.
VpCIs are chemicals that protect metal surfaces and components from corrosion by releasing a vapor that forms a protective barrier on the surface of the metal. VpCIs work by adsorbing onto the metal surface and forming a barrier that inhibits the corrosion process. They are effective in protecting a variety of metals, including carbon steel, aluminum, copper and brass. Finally, before restoration activities begin, cover all equipment — unless it can’t be powered off, then it should never be covered.
Aqueous cleaning of circuit boards
This process aims to remove corrosive and potentially conductive particulates from the board’s surface to ensure cleanliness that meets the manufacturers specification before it is tested, repaired and recalibrated. Here are the basics:
- Pre-cleaning: Removal of debris from the electronic circuit board using mechanical agitation (brushing and vacuuming).
- Wetting: The circuit board is wetted — using a cleaning solution or deionized water — to prepare for scrubbing.
- Cleaning: The circuit board is scrubbed gently — manually or with the help of a machine — to remove any debris or contaminants that may interfere with functionality.
- Rinsing: The circuit board is rinsed — with a cleaning solution or deionized water — to remove all remaining residues/contaminants.
- Drying: The board is dried — using hot air, a convection oven or a vacuum chamber — to remove any remaining moisture.
Once cleaned, the equipment is tested, repaired and recalibrated.
The disaster recovery perspective
Manufacturers of electronic equipment and supplies will all have differing views on the recoverability of water-exposed items considering factors such as type and age of equipment, severity and duration of the equipment’s exposure, and of course, the manufacturer’s individualized policies and procedures.
Most original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) do not have a division dedicated to restoring equipment post loss. Rather, OEMs have a service department capable of repairing equipment, or they engage third party vendors to perform repairs on their behalf. Due to this lack of specialization in post-loss equipment cleaning (e.g., the thorough removal of contaminants like soot residue or tornado/hurricane debris), OEMs typically do not have the capabilities to restore equipment economically. At times, replacing exposed components can lead to recovery costs that far exceed the cost of new equipment. Therefore, instead of the equipment being restored, it’s replaced altogether.
A simpler solution
When OEMs manufacture new equipment, a rigorous cleaning process takes place, one that is identical to the process of decontaminating equipment at a loss site. In fact, post-disaster decontamination in the field has been performed for more than 40 years.
Therein lies the problem: The user of the affected equipment — the entity that experienced the loss — is denied any knowledge of cleaning techniques that were employed during the OEMs’ initial manufacturing process. Knowledge of this process and the ability to employ it in the exact same way following water exposure, affords the user favorable options to restore the equipment. Rather than waiting four to six months for replacement of commercial/custom equipment and suffering financially long term for losing clients that start to source their products elsewhere, the equipment could be restored and delivered in weeks.
EFI Global experts have the knowledge and experience to respond quickly to water exposure and ensure electrical equipment is properly cared for while ensuring that NEMA standards are considered. For more information about reinstating equipment after water exposure contact Paul.Gilbert@efiglobal.com.
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