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The power of plastics

A reliable uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is essential in hospitals and plastic pipework can help boost dependability of fuel supplied to the UPS generator, says David Naylor
The provision of uninterruptable power supplies and fuel powered generators is a critical part of modern hospital buildings. Hospitals rely on this emergency power supply to avoid putting staff and patients at risk in the event of a power cut. Even though these emergency power supplies are indispensable there is often little consideration about the workings of these systems at the outset of a build project.

Fuel-powered generators are often used to provide power if the main power source fails. They function through a pipework system, transporting fuel from underground or aboveground storage tanks to an emergency generator, which will then provide a temporary power supply whilst the main system is repaired or replaced.

Over the last 12 months, there has been widespread media coverage of several hospitals that have suffered power failures, causing major disruption to services and putting patients at risk. In such circumstances, a reliable back-up power system is crucial. However, due to careless installation or low performance, emergency power systems themselves have also been known to fail, causing hospitals major complications.

Experienced power failure
When Gloucestershire Royal Hospital experienced a power failure and the emergency back-up generators failed to kick in, theatres and an intensive care unit were left in the dark, forcing a surgeon to operate by torchlight. In another instance, Shropshire Hospital was hit by a power cut and when its back-up generator system failed, all dialysis sessions taking place were cut short.

A common cause of generators to failing is that the fuel has not reached the generator, meaning that the system can't operate. It is important to install a reliable pipework system that can safely and effectively deliver fuel to generators if called upon.

Durapipe PLX is installed at Gartnavel Royal Hospital in Glasgow

Traditionally, steel pipework has been used to provide the generators with the fuel they need to function, although, frustratingly, as highlighted above, these traditional pipework solutions are prone to failure. The problem with steel is that although it appears to be a tough pipework solution, its lifespan and durability can be compromised under certain conditions.

Over time, steel pipework can corrode and create leak paths that not only harm the environment, but also provide inadequate and inefficient supply of fuel. This corrosion and subsequent pipe wall erosion can lead to contamination of the fuel and an inner-pipe bore build up and clogging of the pipe. This reduces the dimension of the pipe bore, restricting the flow of fuel, often causing long term damage to the generator itself.

This uncertain performance provides concerns for emergency fuel solutions and highlights the need for rigorous and frequent quality control checks on pipework systems and the reliance on continuous maintenance checks. Contractors need to be aware that, with an estimated fuel carrying lifespan of just over five years, steel cannot guarantee performance over a long period of time.

Pipework selection can impact on the installation process and the time and costs involved. Durapipe UK is advising that for fuel supply applications, it is important that contractors consider all options and wherever possible specify secondary containment systems to provide additional pipework protection against damage to the environment and to prevent accidental fuel loss into the atmosphere.

Acceptance of plastic pipework fuel systems is growing rapidly. The installation of plastic pipework for fuel can significantly reduce the time and costs of an Emergency Power Supply installation compared to a steel equivalent.

The traditional below-ground solution of Denzo-wrapped steel can be costly and also very messy and the welding process is more time-consuming than fusion welding plastics. Above-ground systems are generally secondary contained for added safety; the time and costs of welding a steel system is high and requires skilled welders. It also incurs the hassle of obtaining 'hot works permits'.

Again, fusion welding a purpose designed secondary contained plastics system is significantly quicker. Considering these issues, it sparks the question as to why innovative plastics systems are not being readily exploited by contractors and specifiers.

Furthermore, with widespread budget cuts in the NHS, plastic pipework is a cost effective solution for hospitals. The lightweight nature of the products, and a quick and easy jointing technique saves labour time and costs.

// The author is PLX brand manager at Durapipe UK //

25 May 2012

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