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Fire safety question

Discussion in 'Beginner Electronics' started by Derek Potter, Jan 13, 2006.

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  1. Derek Potter

    Derek Potter Guest

    I need some information about the current approach to safety of new
    equipment with regard to fire hazards created by a fault. I appreciate
    there are generic standards covering the ejection of molten metal and
    so on, but I am wondering about the application of the "single
    component failure" concept in situations where a failure could
    overload a semiconductor with the possible, though unlikely, result
    that it ignites or ignites an adjacent part. I'm not asking about
    *techniques* to avoid hazard, I'm asking about what is legally
    required. Trick question - I'm not asking for legal advice, just
    information concerning best current practice. I'm posting from the UK
    but I suspect the regs will be substantially the same in all of Europe
    and the US.

    My particular concern is a small transistor driving an external alarm.
    The power supply has a fuse but as it feeds several circuits, it
    doesn't provide much protection for the external alarm circuit. I am
    considering an active current limit in the supply but I still have
    some reservations as to whether this meets the letter of the law. For
    example, one scenario involves two events as follows:

    1 The current limit fails spontaneously, but as this is not
    monitored, the defect remains undetected, waiting for the second event
    to happen...
    2 Someone fiddles with the external wiring and causes a short.

    The result is that the driver overheats, catches fire and there is
    hell to pay. Now, it is perfectly true that this involves two
    independent "failures" so at first sight would meet the "single
    component failure" criterion. However, I suspect that a fault that is
    never detected (and just lies there waiting for a chance to create a
    hazard) may not count. Likewise, a fault that could be caused by Uncle
    Fred with his screwdriver is hardly a spontaneous component failure.
    So overall, would such a system meet the "due care" criterion?

    I have severe doubts as to whether much equipment is designed with
    this degree of concern but it would be goot to be ahead of the field -
    without incurring too much cost.

    Also, if this isn't the best newsgroup could someone point me in the
    right direction? Most electronics groups seem to be full of people
    selling stuff.

  2. Dan Hollands

    Dan Hollands Guest


    If you are in the UK, you are under EU requirements and you should be
    studying the appropriate IEC specs for the type of equipment you are
    designing. Just as a personal opinion - if there is an output that when
    shorted will cause a fire, then there should be some type of protection for
    the output.
  3. Derek Potter

    Derek Potter Guest

    Indeed so, but my question goes a bit further as I already have
    protection in the shape of a foldback regulator. It's failure of this
    protection that I'm asking about. This is unlikely to cause an
    immediately hazardous condition, but, obviously, if the protection
    fails, the circuit is then left susceptible to any other fault. In
    this case it could be a fairly rare external event. The failure of the
    protection device may not be detected without yet more circuitry to
    monitor the foldback operation of the regulator! Am I being too fussy?
    Do most commercial and consumer devices go this far?
  4. Dan Hollands

    Dan Hollands Guest

    Generally equipment design for general use is only concerned with a single
    failure criteria. In my experience adding more circuitry increases the
    complexity to the point the failure and problems are more likely. The
    problem with all redundant circuits is the need to test them to insure that
    all of the redundant circuits are working. Statistical methods may be used
    to determine how often the redundant circuits must be checked to achieve a
    certain confidance level the system will operate properly when required. In
    your case I would see no need for extra circuitry

    Execeptions are things like Safety Shutdown systems, Intrinsically Safe
    Equipment to insures that sparks or hot spots don't trigger an explosion in
    explosive atmospheres and control systems in nuclear power plants.
  5. w_tom

    w_tom Guest

    No one can accurately answer your question without numbers. Up
    front, numbers such as current and voltage should have been provided.
    Is this a 3 volt system or a 300,000 volt system? Also the environment
    should be considered.

    Which means only a generic answer can be provided. Any single point
    failure has a protective backup. For example, transistor switch
    current limited by an emitter resistor in series with a fuse,
    polyswitch, or overvoltage crowbar. But again, we don't even know what
    the danger is - with numbers. Therefore a useful answer is not
  6. Derek Potter

    Derek Potter Guest

    I know what you are driving at, but how exactly will you apply the
    numbers? There are plenty of regulations covering increased hazards
    for, say high voltage or explosive atmosphere. I did not mention these
    - obviously my question implied they do not apply. Hence I made it
    explicit that I am interested in generic standards and best practice.

    You should also notice that I explicitly said "small transistor" thus
    ruling out 300KV and 10KA systems. I would be most interested to learn
    how different voltage and current levels would affect your analysis,
    given that whatever they are, they need to fit the handling capacity
    of a "small transistor". How is 12V 120mA going to be any different
    from, say 5V 1mA or even (pushing the "small transistor" term to its
    limits) 48V, 1A?

    I also suggested the Uncle Fred might fiddle with the external wiring
    thus creating a hazard. Since high voltage and high current cabling is
    obviously not accessible, this scenario implies that the power levels
    are small - just enough to blow a "small transitor" but not enough to
    warrent physically protected cables.

    As for the danger, you do know what it is. I explicitly said that the
    failure scenario is overload of a semiconductor - the small transistor
    mentioned later - with the possible end result of ignition of the

    As suggested by the term "Uncle Fred", the application is domestic
    consumer. However, I do not have any data on Uncle Freds so I cannot
    provide numbers for you calculations.

    FWIIW ,the small transistor circuit in question is a BS160 FET driving
    a 12V load at 120mA but subject to possible short circuits as said.
    The system fuse is 1A but fuses do not blow instantly so, with the
    fairly high "on" resistance of the FET (rising as it heats up) there
    is the distinct possibility of the TO92 device dissipating many watts
    before failing. The electronic protection comprises a foldback
    regulator and is perfectly adequate unless, of course it fails first,
    leaving the circuit unprotected without any indication of the latent
  7. Derek Potter

    Derek Potter Guest

    Agreed completely and I tend to think, like you, that having a little
    foldback regulator to guard against the occasional shorted load is
    probably enough. The question hinges on what comprises a "single
    component failure" since an external short in unprotected wiring
    accessible to "Uncle Fred" is not exactly a component failure.
    Likewise failure of the current limit doesn't create a fault in itself
    but, as it's not going to be monitored, this doesn't quite settle the
    matter - it leaves the system in a vulnerable state to an external

    I suppose, in a nutshell, the question comes down to whether
    protection circuits are relevant to "due care" if an undetectable
    failure in the protection leaves the system just as vulnerable as if
    the protection were not there.

    On another tack, I may work around this by fitting a fire-resistant
    sleeve over the transistor. It can burn as much as it likes then, but
    I was hoping to avoid the trouble.
  8. Dan Hollands

    Dan Hollands Guest


    It is almost impossible to make a prduct completely fail proof. All you can
    do by adding more components is decrease the likely hood of a problem. If
    the accidental shorting of external connections can cause a fire then it is
    prudent to add protection such as your current limit circuit. That is all
    you need to do. A problem will only occur if 2 unlikely events occur. If you
    added another current limit circuit a problem would only occur if 3 unlikely
    events occured. That is above and beyond what is required for normal use

  9. Derek Potter

    Derek Potter Guest

    That's good. I shall drag you into court if we get prosecuted :)

    Seriously, I felt I was being unduly fussy but it's good to get some
    comments from other designers - especially if they support the
    common-sense view.

    Next topic - EMC and the need for compliant testing...
  10. w_tom

    w_tom Guest

    After a long response, some useful numbers. 12 volts at 120 mA is a
    significant difference from, for example, a telephone wire. Telephone
    wire can have 100 volts. If just a consumer product operating at 12
    volts, then a regulator or current limited transistor switch may be
    more than sufficient - depending in maximum source current and how much
    PC board damage is acceptable. Some use Polyswitch from Raychem (now
    Tyco) in series for backup protection; as noted earlier.

    Polyswitch, for example, is often unacceptable for phone line (low
    power) applications because of 60+ volts. Phone lines meet the
    criteria in an earlier post that did not provide numbers - which is why
    hedging on a Polyswitch recommendation was necessary.

    What are failure criteria? If 12 volts rises to say 16, will that
    cause a component to short circuit, then resulting in a short circuit
    and (maybe) fire? Some 12 volt loads can withstand 30+ volts for short
    periods. Others cannot. If used in automotive functions, then most
    regulators will not meet the load dump criteria. Criteria typically
    not found in computer 12 volt applications.

    120 mA normal load implies a single point failure could consume
    significant power (amperes?). In which case a second device (ie
    Polyswitch) would provide good backup protection. This same protection
    is use on computer keyboard and mouse ports. At low voltages and
    currents, fuses have not been a preferred solution for maybe 20 years

    Nothing above could be recommended with an earlier post that provided
    no numbers. Even 12 volts verses 60 volts would change the
    recommendation. Again, replies will only be as good as the numbers
  11. Derek Potter

    Derek Potter Guest

    The long response was an attempt to clarify the fact that I was asking
    about best practice and the interpretation of the "single component
    failure" concept, not asking for circuit recommendations.

    Incidentally, Polyswitches may be rated at 60V but other readily
    available PTCs go to 265V. However, when you say "In which case a
    second device (ie Polyswitch) would provide good backup protection"
    you are not making it clear whether your recommendation is to use an
    active current limit *and* a Polyswitch, or just have a Polyswitch in
    series with the load in case there's a short. The former sounds like
    overkill but is the only possible design approach given a Draconian
    interpretation of "single component failure" as the external load and
    the unmonitored current limit don't count. The other is merely
    substituting a Polyswitch for the regulator and is subject to the same
    failure scenario that I was asking about.
  12. w_tom

    w_tom Guest

    The keyboard and mouse are connected to a 'tens of amp' power supply
    with only a Polyswitch for protection. In that application, a burned
    PC trace is acceptable. In a machine that handled dangerous materials,
    we used a small regulator AND a Polyswitch, in series, because
    consequences of failure there were catastrophic. Only two layers of
    protection because voltage could never exceed a regulator's maximum
    input voltage.

    Note the difference between both solutions. Details of upstream
    power source and downstream consequences of failure must be considered.

    In one appliance, a manufacturer used a circuit breaker in series
    with Polyswitch. But the designer did not quite understand how
    failures occur. He put two 60 volt Polyswitches in series thinking
    that was equivalent to one 120 volt Polyswitch. When the circuit
    breaker failed to trip, those Polyswitch devices also failed causing a
    house fire. An example provided as background insight.

    Never used (therefore studied) those higher voltage Polyswitches; so
    I am hesitant to recommend them. Numbers for incoming voltages and
    currents that can damage the regulator/transistor/Polyswitch and the
    downstream consequences of a failure are necessary to better answer
    your question. Again, a Polyswitch alone is sufficient for keyboard
    power because consequences of a Polyswitch failure are not
  13. Derek Potter

    Derek Potter Guest

    Really? Who says? In the final analysis you are relying on that PCB
    trace to provide fuse protection in the event of your PTC failing. Is
    that really an example of the "best practice" I was asking about? I
    think not!
    Look, Tom. I am very grateful for the effort you have put into
    answering some question or other, but it isn't the one I asked. You
    may work to "industry standards" or exceed them. Or you could be a
    bunch of cowboys. I don't think you are, but your ad-hoc methods
    aren't relevant to my question.

    As for the technique you describe, it is just an example of avoiding
    the oft-cited "single component failure" criterion. Two failures are
    needed to create a hazard. They are independent and, also, they are
    internal. However, what I asked about was whether a rare but possible
    external event would qualify.

    However, even your double protection technique is suspect as the two
    protection circuits are not monitored. At least, you haven'tmentioned
    such a vital thing, which would be odd because monitoring both would
    be relevant to my query.
    A pretty elementary mistake when using PTCs is to ignore thermal
    runaway leading to voltage stress. Presumably his design was never run
    past a professional engineer and never bench tested. Generic safety
    standards do explictly prohibit counting domino failures. So just one
    CB failure caused both PTCs to fail and thus only comprises a single
    component failure. This is yet another example of industry *bad*
    practice and whilst fairly amusing and possibly useful to amateurs is
    *not* helpful as regards the interpretation of "single component
    failures" in the context that I asked about, viz external cabling
    faults and latent (unmonitored) internal failures.
    Actually it wasn't a question, I was correcting your implication that
    PTC protection is not possible above 60V. Primary-side PTCs are
    frequently buried inside mains transformers.
    As I stated in my original post:
    "Best practice" does not mean "what would you suggest?" or "what does
    your company do?" thanks all the same. My question was very specific,
    about the general principle of single component failure. I am quite
    capable of designing appropriate circuitry given a target performance.
    It's what I do.
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