In a range of facilities from manufacturing plants to oil refineries, gas detectors are the first line of defence for protecting the facilities and the people inside them from exposure to hazardous gases. However, while they are crucial for safety, portable and fixed detectors are not without limitations.
Recent years have seen the use of wireless connectivity increase in a wide variety of applications, including health and safety. “Connected health and safety devices can protect the workforce better, whilst providing many of the benefits associated with Internet of Things (IoT) technologies: more automation, increased productivity, improved reporting accuracy and reduced cost,” points out Prabhu Soundarrajan, global business director for connected worker, Honeywell Industrial Safety.
“They can also deliver better visibility over essential safety processes, such as gas monitoring, helping operators optimise compliance. With companies in the utilities and manufacturing sectors currently paying fines ranging from £100,000 to £400,000, on average, for health and safety breaches, the possibility of leveraging wireless connectivity to improve safety and simplify compliance is a tempting one.”
Overcoming challenges with wireless connectivity
Gas detection has traditionally been managed through either portable or fixed devices with limited or no connectivity. Portable gas detectors are frequently part of a plant engineer’s personal protective equipment (PPE) and designed primarily for the wearer’s protection, whereas fixed detectors are permanently located in the facility or structure they protect, monitoring concentrations in a specific area where there is a risk of gas leaks.
“However, despite their proven performance, a number of well-documented challenges can be associated with both types of detectors,” Soundarrajan adds. “For fixed detectors, the main issue is often their location. The detectors are often mounted in very high or hard-to-reach areas in the facility, depending on the configuration of machinery or density of the gas they are used to detect, which can make interrogation and maintenance difficult, time-consuming and even dangerous, in some cases. To read the display, engineers may need to set up access equipment, such as hydraulic lifts, ladders and platforms, and it can take several trips back and forth between the detector and the controller to complete the task.
“With portable gas detectors, the main challenge is that while the device keeps the wearer informed of local gas threats, the safety manager cannot monitor the worker’s well-being remotely. In the case of an accident where the worker is incapacitated and unable to raise the alarm, this lack of visibility can lead to a delay in the emergency response, potentially putting the worker’s life at risk.”
In response to these challenges, the latest gas detection products now feature Bluetooth connectivity to provide a safer and a more user-friendly experience, and to enable a range of activities to be carried out remotely. Bluetooth-enabled fixed gas detectors can be set up and interrogated remotely, using a smartphone app and an intrinsically safe smartphone specifically developed for use in hazardous environments.
“For situations requiring portable gas detectors, connected devices are easier to use, reduce administration time and optimise safety,” Soundarrajan continues. “They offer safety managers better situational awareness of the worker and the plant: they can track the worker, regardless of their location, and collect valuable data about the environment, alarm history, equipment safety and even the worker’s training. This enhanced visibility enables a faster response, in case of an emergency, and better-informed rescue operations.”
Connectivity is also available for facilities with an existing infrastructure of fully-functioning devices. Retrofit options can bring the main elements of connectivity to legacy detectors. “For example, to make existing Honeywell portable detectors connected, Honeywell’s BW Connect device can be slid on to the charging port of the detector, enabling it to be paired with a smartphone via a Bluetooth connection,” Soundarrajan says. “Similarly, add-on wired accessories, known as smart junction boxes, or Bluetooth-enabled local displays can be connected to fixed detectors to enable workers to perform various maintenance tasks away from the detector’s inaccessible or hazardous location, without the need to replace the whole device.”
Introducing cloud-based or real-time wireless connectivity to fixed gas detectors helps engineers complete a range of tasks remotely or from the safety of ground-level. By using a smartphone app to connect to the detector, the worker can access vital information in real time, including the gas readings, diagnostic information, service history and the date of the last calibration. This is especially useful when working with detectors that are mounted high up: for example, near the ceiling of a manufacturing facility. Without a remote connection, performing routine maintenance tasks such as calibration or interrogating the device for information would require working at height, putting operators at greater risk of injury. By being able to carry out the job from the ground floor, engineers can instantly reduce the risk associated with this essential, yet potentially dangerous, task.
“The latest Bluetooth-enabled solutions can also tackle the problem of excessive administration time,” explains Soundarrajan. “Many of Honeywell’s customers report that maintenance teams frequently spend up to half a day per week preparing calibration reports by hand. A smartphone app can speed up the process by enabling the engineers to complete these tasks whilst out in the field.
“The process requires little time or effort from the worker. The latest apps capture the information during the calibration process and automatically store it in the mobile handset, from where a simple report can be produced showing the calibration parameters. The engineer can then add a signature, close the job and send a PDF report to the facilities manager directly from a phone. This saves time, improves efficiency and productivity, and gets the report to the manager without delay.” The ability to close jobs and generate reports while out in the field can improve operational efficiency and potentially reduce the risk of errors in reporting.
It can also streamline maintenance and administration tasks associated with servicing each gas detector, enabling engineers to cover more jobs during a shift. This is also evident in portable gas detection: the connected devices monitor and feed back to the manager in charge, leaving the engineers free to carry on with their tasks without having to stop at regular intervals to report back.
How facilities benefit
It is easy to see how connectivity can help plant managers optimise their resources when it comes to maintaining and interrogating fixed gas detectors, and keeping their teams safe when performing tasks in high-risk areas, such as confined spaces like manholes.
An example that Soundarrajan gives is a UK-based brewer and drinks manufacturer that wanted to improve gas detection in its on-site energy centre, to optimise safety and improve productivity. “The challenge for the company was that the control panel for its existing fixed gas detectors was located just outside the energy centre,” he says. “To interrogate it, engineers had to get close enough to be able to visually inspect it, potentially exposing themselves to the hazardous gases that could be present in the facility. The process was also very time-consuming, and required frequent back-and-forth trips between the controller and other areas of the facility.
“To overcome the issue, the plant’s existing detectors were retrofitted to a new Honeywell Touchpoint Pro controller, featuring wireless connectivity. As a result, the engineers now no longer need to visually inspect the control panel to perform a reading. The central controller’s web server interface means they can monitor the system status remotely, on a smartphone or a tablet, wherever there is an internet connection. The engineering team is now able to respond to potential incidents more quickly and efficiently, reducing downtime. The retrofit solution also avoided the unnecessary upheaval and downtime associated with changing the control panel’s location, as it was able to stay in the same spot just outside of the energy centre.”
The connected future
Over the coming years, connected gas detection technology is set to become increasingly widespread as new industries want, and need, to access the benefits and flexibility going wireless can deliver. The desire to avoid costly and damaging safety incidents, as well as the pressure to improve operational efficiency to remain competitive, will be substantial drivers for adoption across all areas of connected safety. This is further supported by advances in cloud technology, which helps speed up the uptake of information collected from new transportable devices, including the latest multi-threat monitors, such as those in Honeywell’s AreaRAE portfolio. Easy and flexible to deploy, such devices help facility managers anticipate, and respond to, changes in requirements and scale quickly and efficiently.
“Additionally, as connectivity expands the potential for real-time intelligence-gathering from gas detection devices, businesses will benefit from a vast amount of data gathered from the facility and the biometric variables of the workers,” Soundarrajan concludes. “This will help them to monitor worker well-being more effectively and act proactively to prevent injury; for example, if their blood pressure or heart rate starts to rise. The environmental data gathered about the facility can also help to plan maintenance, identify potential risks in advance, and develop comprehensive health and safety strategies.”
With several benefits already available, it is easy to see that the future of gas detection is wireless. Connected gas detectors help reduce the risks that facilities and maintenance teams encounter in their daily tasks, provide better protection for the facility, enable businesses to comply with health and safety regulations, and help safety managers reach their ultimate goal of sending workers home safe and sound after every shift.