Equipment contamination and quantification after a property loss

Across various industry sectors and businesses, commercial electrical and mechanical equipment can be exposed to contaminants from fire, water and other perils. After a loss event, particulates often settle on susceptible surfaces — which can lead to deterioration and damage. Equipment consultants are trained to carry out repeatable scientific analyses to help clients navigate contamination claims. Foundationally, the goal is to assist the equipment owners, prevent surface degradation in the form of corrosion and rust, and rebuild confidence in the equipment once fully restored.

5 step process

Proper equipment evaluation with a view to minimize business interruption requires a detailed understanding of production needs, assembly of a triaged equipment priority listing, determination of the extent of potential damage, as well as extensive knowledge of analytical sampling, liability and subrogation. This process involves five key steps that equipment consultants adhere to closely.

  • Gather data about the environment. Post loss, the environment the equipment is exposed to can be benign or potentially detrimental. Quantifying temperature and relative humidity (RH) is a critical first step. If environmental control is necessary, controlling the temperature and lowering the relative humidity to between 45% and 55%, is the first preservation measure that can be employed quickly to prevent surface deterioration. Introduction of vapor phase corrosion inhibitor (VpCI) emitters into enclosed spaces, such as unvented control panels, is another method of controlling metal deterioration while the environment is being stabilized. VpCI technology emits vapors which form a molecular layer on metal surfaces to protect against corrosion — even in the presence of detrimental environmental conditions.
  • Utilize appropriate sampling methodologies. One size does not fit all. There are samples that are specifically designed to differentiate between soot, char and ash. This type of sampling methodology is important when trying to differentiate between wildfire ash and soot from incomplete combustion of carbon-based materials. Sources of such soot include unvented fossil-fired heating appliances, fireplaces, environmental contaminants, carbon from vehicle exhaust, and nearby factories.
  • Immediately determine which pieces of equipment may be restorable and which are a total loss. Commercial equipment is oftentimes made custom, which means procurement lead times can be substantial. As of the writing of this blog, lead times for electrical gear and some electrical components are 8 to 16 months. It’s therefore the consultant’s responsibility to quickly advise which equipment should be to replaced, allowing for purchase orders to be issued. It is also critical to immediately start collaborative discussions with manufacturers, to ensure warranties and service contracts are maintained, on equipment that can be restored.
  • Research restoration, repair and replacement costs, and present a recovery course of action. While some items needing replacement may be obvious — such as those consumed in the fire — the correct recovery course for others (particularly older items) may not be. Equipment consultants must assess costs to determine and recommend an appropriate restoration method that will restore production to pre-loss.
  • Report all findings. The consultants’ findings, recommendations, and research costs have to be published in a report that can be appreciated by all involved. Whether the equipment owners perform the recommended recovery activities or not, the insurance carrier and the policy holder should be able to reach a just settlement on the equipment side utilizing the published report.

Sampling methodologies: gathering particulate data

Several methods are used to collect contaminant samples, which are sent to a laboratory. Analytical wipe samples show the contaminant’s composition, help quantify the potential rate of deterioration as well as corrosiveness. Tape lifts help differentiate between combustion byproducts such as soot, char and ash. Gathering particulate data eliminates the need to speculate about what may be happening as a result of exposure. Conductivity meters help determine the likelihood of electrical short circuiting, which is critical when the equipment owners want to resume production before the equipment is restored.

Case study: ionic wipe sampling

A consultant was dispatched to a warehouse owned by the board of elections, where hundreds of voting machines — worth sixty million dollars — were stored. A snowplow parked in an adjoining garage caught fire and smoke spread throughout the facility. The board of elections sought replacement of all the voting machines to ensure future election results would not be disputed as a result of the loss event.

Soot settled on the external surfaces of the voting machines protective cases’. The consultant, together with the manufacturer, opened approximately 15% of the cases and sampled within the machines. Laboratory results showed that the machines internal circuitry cleanliness met the manufacturer’s standard, and therefore, none needed to be replaced.

Contamination and equipment susceptibility

Even if a facility is kept in immaculate condition, there could be pre-existing, or pre-loss contamination, present in the environment that’s wholly unrelated to the loss event. Examples include outdoor contaminants (such as dust or pollution), production byproduct or house-cleaning products. Contamination that is introduced during the loss event, can result from combustion byproduct, fire suppression activities, environmental factors or even drywall particulate borne from facility restoration activities.

Corrosion, a naturally occurring chemical attack on certain metals, can be exacerbated by newly introduced contaminants, causing deterioration of vulnerable surfaces. Dry (or chemical) corrosion can appear at high temperatures when the air’s oxygen reacts with susceptible metals — without the presence of liquid. Wet (or electrochemical) corrosion occurs when certain metals are exposed to water or elevated humidity, and the surface degrades through oxidation; in other words, it rusts.

Factors impacting the rate of corrosion include temperature, water exposure, pollutants and airborne particles such as salts (think of a hurricane bringing in salty rain from the Gulf Coast, which falls and agitates surfaces). Relative humidity, a key factor, must be lowered to between 45 and 55% as a preventive measure.

The first 24 hours

Following a loss event, it’s recommended to power off all equipment, and advance with the assumption that all equipment is susceptible to rusting. Engage entities that can lower the humidity appropriately to prevent corrosion. Build containments as necessary by separating non-contaminated equipment from contaminated ones. Next, apply a rust inhibitor on all exposed metals that have not been protected with a coat of paint — this mitigates deterioration. Do not apply oil based rust inhibiting products on electronic assemblies. Be sure to cover equipment before removing wet drywall, to prevent secondary exposure. Then the process of a thorough evaluation begins.

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