The benefits of plastics for power generation

Plastic Power GenerationCaroline Bowie, our PLX brand manager at Durapipe UK discusses the benefits of plastics for power generation.

The provision of fuel powered generators is an integral part of the construction of modern buildings such as hospitals, data centres, prisons, banks and modern schools and academies. They rely on this emergency fuel supply in the event of a power failure, to ensure they can continue to operate vital systems. Yet despite this, these systems are often not given enough consideration at the outset of a project.

In a culture where electrical power is fundamental for day to day living, power cuts have shown how, within a modern day society, we are left utterly helpless and vulnerable when denied electrical power. Power failures have the potential to cause widespread catastrophes and as a result, the need for a high performing emergency power supply is absolutely essential.

Unfortunately, whilst we enjoy the benefits of extensive technological advancement in the 21st century, we are still very much reactionary when it comes to problems that occur. For instance, we often hear after an incident that it could easily have been prevented should a certain measure have been taken beforehand. What is more, we frequently see that whilst the problem may have been a technical failing our own legal or health and safety regulations were not what they should have been leading up to the problem.

Power cuts are by their very nature unexpected, meaning that emergency power systems need to be regularly checked and updated to ensure that they will perform to the required standards, should they be called upon in an emergency. As a result, it is essential that the utmost thought is given to the specification of these systems at the outset of a project, as they have the potential to prevent large scale problems in the event of a power cut.

However, due to careless installation or low performing systems, emergency power generators themselves have also been known to fail leaving buildings without a back up plan and in potentially serious danger. One incident occurred in a Los Angeles hospital in 2008: due to the faults with the emergency power supply, 200 patients were left without power for nearly four hours. This included 24 patients who had been reliant on ventilators, some of the patients being new born babies. Although the situation was eventually resolved, the situation would not have reached the worrying heights it did, had a suitably performing emergency power system been in place.

Fuel powered generators are popular systems to use to provide power if the main power source fails. They function through a pipework system transporting fuel to a emergency generator, which will then provide a temporary power supply whilst the main system is repaired or replaced. There are two typical pipework systems that are used to provide the fuel supply, underground pipework systems or imperative fuel flow systems.

For fuel supply applications, it is important that contractors specify secondary containment (pipe-in-pipe) systems due to the potential safety hazards caused if fuel was to leak into the atmosphere. Secondary containment pipe systems are becoming compulsory for many pipework applications, and are the preferred solution for fuel conveyance. However, Durapipe is keen to stress that not all secondary containment pipe systems are the same and they all offer different performance and installation capabilities.

Traditionally, steel pipework has been specified as the preferred pipework solution to provide the generators with the fuel they need to function, although frustratingly, these pipework solutions are also known to sometimes fail. A common cause of flawed systems can be fuel not reaching the emergency generator, meaning it has no way of functioning. This can occur for several reasons, including, complete corrosion of the pipework, where the fuel or the environment has penetrated the pipe or there is clogging of the pipe bore, resulting in fuel not flowing at a consistent rate.

In some steel pipework systems, ‘clogging’ in the inner bore can contaminate the fuel which will then result in long term damage to the generator itself. These issues highlight the need for rigorous and frequent quality control checks, on pipework systems that cannot offer a long term product performance.

The difficulty with steel, is that although it has been felt to be a durable pipework solution for certain applications, the lifespan of this durability is limited and has shown no signs of improvement. This provides concerns for emergency fuel solutions, as although the hope is that it will never be called upon, if it is, it needs to perform. Contractors need to be aware that with an estimated fuel carrying lifespan of just over five years steel is a solution that cannot guarantee performance capabilities over a long period of time, and corrosion may prevent it from performing when it needs to.

In terms of the installation process, this can be lengthy with traditional metal systems such as steel. Whether these systems run under, or over ground, it requires skilled installers to fit the pipework. In the case of installing underground pipework systems, hot works permits are needed, which can result in an extremely complicated and timely installation process. Considering these issues, sparks the question of why innovative materials, such as plastic, are not being readily exploited by contractors and specifiers.

Plastic, is an example of a reliable alternative material that can be used to provide pipework solutions for emergency fuel supply. Lightweight and easy to install by nature, plastic pipework eradicates the complex installation properties associated with metal competitors. Plastic systems simplify the installation process for contractors, as they do not need a skilled welder to install the system due to the innovative electrofusion jointing system. What is more, they do not require the use of hot works permits when being installed, which greatly speeds up the installation time as well as saving contractors money on labour costs significantly. These sorts of economic savings can be extremely beneficial for contractors in a time when project timings and budgets are continuing to be ever narrower.

Leading plastic pipework system, PLX from Durapipe UK, is an example of a viable pipework alternative that can be used for emergency fuel applications. Manufactured in a robust polyethylene material, the secondary containment (pipe-in-pipe) system provides excellent resistance to long term stress cracking and is ideal to carry a wide variety of fuel based liquids. Additionally, its impressive durability gives it a design life of 30 years making it ideal for use for applications such as emergency fuel supply, where it is imperative to install a system that does not have to be regularly maintained or replaced.

Alternative pipework solutions that build on the performance quality of steel whilst addressing its limitations are available to contractors and need to be more readily explored in the initial specification process. In an industry that is continually looking for higher performing and more reliable products, it calls for a reassessment of just how well traditional materials such as steel, are working within the emergency power generation sector and why alternatives are not being explored at the outset of projects.
(This article was published in April 2010 in Electrical Review magazine).