Battery Experts Separate Fact From Fiction Part Two

Last month, Power Quality magazine brought you the first of a two-part series focusing on stationary lead-acid batteries and spill containment issues. This month, our experts return to discuss battery codes and standards in depth. The panel consists of Curtis Ashton, Qwest Communications; Steve McCluer, American Power Conversion; and Jose Marrero, Southern Company Nuclear. We hope these segments will clear up some of the confusion surrounding lead-acid batteries and spill containment and foster continued discussion.

Last month, Power Quality magazine brought you the first of a two-part series focusing on stationary lead-acid batteries and spill containment issues. This month, our experts return to discuss battery codes and standards in depth. The panel consists of Curtis Ashton, Qwest Communications; Steve McCluer, American Power Conversion; and Jose Marrero, Southern Company Nuclear. We hope these segments will clear up some of the confusion surrounding lead-acid batteries and spill containment and foster continued discussion.

PQ. What is the basic requirement for spill containment and whose standards do you follow?

CA. Qwest Communications provides spill containment for its flooded lead-acid battery systems. Placing 4-in. barriers around each stand can inhibit access to the batteries, so we typically compartmentalize and contain an entire room (including raised doors) and provide ADA-compliant ramps. Although epoxy is a popular floor sealant, there are many other acid-resistant, linoleum-type materials that provide essential liquid-tight barriers. We don't provide spill containment for VRLA batteries because the electrolyte is immobilized.

Spill containment codes for batteries first appeared in the Uniform Fire Code (UFC) in 1995. Subsequent codes have followed a similar model, but there are a myriad of interpretations over proper application. Although fire marshals or other authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) have the final say, it helps to work with them to come to reasonable interpretations.

SM. The code used by most states and the one that most directly addresses spill control for batteries is Article 64 of the UFC. Article 64 requires a 4-in. liquid-tight barrier mounted 1 in. away from the perimeter of a stand of batteries when the aggregate amount of electrolyte in a room exceeds a defined limit. That limit currently depends on your method of fire suppression — it's 100 gal if you have a sprinkler system and 50 gal if you don't.

The standards that building owners must follow, as Curtis mentioned, depend upon the AHJ in the locality where the battery installation occurs. In practice, regional localities tend to adopt codes and then modify them to meet their needs. Problems arise and costs vary when code enforcement and interpretation change from location to location.

PQ. If there are competing standards organizations, how do you know which standards to follow and under what conditions?

SM. That's part of the problem — you don't always know. You feel like you're being pulled in umpteen directions. It comes down to the AHJ, but that could be a fire code, a building code, a federal or local agency, or even an electrical code. Here's just a few examples of the multiple codes out there (see the table, on page 42, for a more complete list).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have rules that treat batteries as hazardous substances that must be reported. The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) requires businesses to report batteries in their buildings if the cumulative electrolyte exceeds 500 lb or 50 gal. Failure to do so can — and does — result in harsh penalties. These reports go to local emergency planning committee (LEPCs), state emergency planning commissions (SEPCs), and local fire departments. The National Fire Protection Association has at least eight codes and/or standards that address, or plan to address, stationary batteries. The newest code, the International Fire Code (IFC), consolidates codes originally written by the Southern Building Codes Congress International (SBCCI), the Building Officials and Code Administrators International (BOCA), and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO). The IFC is so new it has been adopted in only a handful of cities.

As you can see, it can be quite confusing for someone who needs to install a battery system.

PQ. Do you feel there is a need to harmonize the standards?

CA. Yes. Harmonization is necessary to prevent wasting money on practices that don't help resolve the issue.

SM. Absolutely. We've already seen some movement in that direction, but it can be years before communities adopt the latest codes. Typically, communities lag behind by one or two revision cycles (one cycle is approximately 3 yr). And problems remain when organizations compete with one another. The IFC, for example, which combined the codes of three different organizations, was intended to replace the UFC. The IFC, unlike the UFC, recognizes the differences in battery types, and the next edition will include a new chapter specifically for VRLA batteries that exempts them from spill containment requirements. The parent organization of the UFC, the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA), refuses to recognize the IFC. They are now joining with the NFPA to integrate the UFC and the Fire Prevention Code into one document titled NFPA 1.

Last August, the UFC and NFPA working groups proposed battery language similar to the IFC. In the draft, spill containment would apply only to large systems, but it probably would not exempt VRLA batteries. NFPA 1 won't be released until 2003, so there's still time for further revisions.

JM. I agree that combining the different codes and standards into one coherent set would benefit everyone.

PQ. Do you believe spill containment should be included in NFPA codes? If so, where?

SM. Yes, but the code writers need to keep the issue of spill containment in perspective. Battery spills aren't a national epidemic; they are rare occurrences with relatively minor consequences. And spill containment as presently defined would help in only a small percentage of cases.

Even within the NFPA, there are several codes that address batteries. We are lobbying them to keep the number of codes dealing with one subject to a minimum. In July 2001 they narrowly defeated a motion to put spill containment into the National Electric Code. That could still happen in a later edition. I think one of the fire codes is an appropriate place to address the subject, irrespective of who publishes it. If other codes wish to address the subject, they should do so by referring only to a fire code.

JM. I agree that the NFPA needs to reduce the number of sections addressing a single issue. NFPA 1, which will integrate the Fire Prevention Code and the UFC, is the most appropriate document.

However, I would prefer using the word “control” instead of “containment.” There are many ways to minimize the risks involved with stationary battery installation and operation. Containment is just one of those ways. Each application requires the proper design, installation, and maintenance to meet its specific needs. Building owners must ensure safety of personnel and the environment with a level proportionate to the true risk involved.

PQ. Under what conditions (installation, transportation, and maintenance) should spill containment apply?

CA. This is one question that definitely needs further development. In my opinion, spill containment for flooded batteries is overkill. The telephone industry has used flooded lead-acid batteries for more than 100 years, and only a few major spills have occurred while the batteries are online. The majority of incidents occur during installation, removal, and transportation. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has some good rules and regulations for hazardous material transportation, but there aren't enough rules that adequately address spill containment during installation and removal.

SM. Curtis is right. Spills from batteries sitting on racks are quite rare. Nevertheless, I believe it's reasonable to provide spill containment for flooded batteries, as long as it doesn't interfere with accessing or servicing the batteries. There have been a small number of instances where batteries lost electrolyte due to bullet holes or fires, and containment systems would have helped. In all of the cases I've seen, the amount of electrolyte has been small. The important thing is to have electrolyte absorption, neutralization, and disposal tools on hand.

JM. I disagree with Steve. As a rule, there is nothing reasonable about spill containment for flooded cells. There might be an application where I would use it, but it would depend on the individual situation. I would want to see the data that point to a problem, and I would ask about the level of risk to personnel and how mandatory containment would address the issue.

One important area we haven't addressed is storage — temporary storage of batteries for new installations, storage of cells after removal and prior to shipment for recycling, and permanent storage of spare cells.

PQ. How do you handle spills at your facilities?

CA. An employee who finds a spill must do two things as a minimum: Attempt to contain the spill using absorbent pillows and call our internal hazardous material response team.

JM. We have spill containment kits in or near every battery room or storage location. An individual who discovers a spill can attempt to contain and absorb the spill if he has been trained in this area. Otherwise, he must call our hotline so the dispatcher can send the hazmat team. Our environmental personnel disposes the hazardous material.

PQ. What guidelines should people follow if they experience a battery fire?

CA. Notify the fire department and a hazardous material response team immediately. You should give evacuation strong consideration because burning batteries can produce several toxic gases, such as chlorine (depending on the jar material) and hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg gas). Burning batteries also can produce an acid mist when the electrolyte atomizes. Once firefighters extinguish the fire and the response team takes care of the hazardous material, you should examine all sensitive electronic equipment thoroughly for damage from corrosive chemicals, such as soot or acid.

JM. At our power plant, dispatchers call our internal fire response teams and alert nearby fire departments in case additional help is needed. From my own experiences fighting fires, I believe the first step should be isolation (electrical and ventilation) of the affected rooms and evacuation of personnel.

If you're lucky enough to have access to a thermo imaging mask, you might consider entering the room prior to desmoking. After desmoking, enter the room using only fog until you identify and evaluate the heat source. In a flooded battery installation (and depending on the cause), the fire will most likely self-extinguish upon the removal of the conduction path. Remember, the materials used in the jar are fire-retardant to some degree. When the electrolyte evaporates out of the affected cells, it has a cooling effect on the fire.

In addition, the electrolyte is approximately 70% water, which means you'll dilute it even more. Under these conditions, along with the protection provided by the turnout gear, battery electrolyte would be one of my least concerns.

That concludes the second part of our series on lead-acid batteries and spill containment. If you'd like to ask the panelists additional questions, you can e-mail Curtis Ashton at [email protected], Stephen McClure at [email protected], and Jose Marrero at [email protected].

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