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Transformers: the hidden fire safety risk? 

Transformers power a wide range of infrastructures, including hospitals, transport hubs and any number of commercial buildings. However, given their importance, any failings can present a major risk to a company’s reputation, continuity and bottom line. 

Most transformers today are cooled by mineral oil. However, this is a flammable liquid so mineral oil transformers are prone to fires, which can endanger lives and damage nearby property and land. Companies must let them burn out, which can take days, or extinguish them with nitrogen – but even then, they’re left counting the cost. Added to that, if a mineral oil transformer leaks, it can create environmental damage as the liquid itself is not biodegradable. 

With mineral oil transformers, there will always be risks, so businesses need to evaluate the dangers and safeguard against them. The first risk factor is location. The transformer’s proximity to people, combustible materials or environments will determine just how destructive a fire or leak could be. The second factor is what the transformer is powering. If it feeds electricity to a retail operation, loss of electricity could have massive commercial consequences. If it powers a hospital, it could even jeopardise lives. 

Many companies may not realise there are safer alternatives to mineral oil. Ester-based fluids are one example, which remove the risk of transformer fires and are now proven as best practice in fire avoidance. That’s because they have a relatively high fire point – nearly double that of mineral oil – and significantly lower calorific value. At a board level, esters provide a mechanism to not only mitigate risk but also to boost corporate CSR programmes and green strategies. Because esters are biodegradable, they are the natural, environmentally-friendly option. Transformers: the hidden fire safety risk? 

There is a major barrier to switching though – and that’s the perceived cost of ester-based fluids. However, the truth is esters can actually reduce a transformer’s overall total cost of ownership. Because companies don’t need to include as many safety features with ester transformers, companies can save money on installations. They also need considerably less space, which creates further cost-savings, particularly in expensive urban locations. As a result, any initial capital increases turn into significant savings. Some estimates suggest the companies can save as much as 30% over the lifespan of an ester transformer compared to mineral oil. 

For too long, companies have been limited by commercial constraints or simply because they weren’t aware of the options. Simply put, alternatives to mineral oil are available and they’re not only safer but also commercially viable. For companies, that means more possibilities to minimise risk, ensure business continuity and bolster CSR programmes. 

By Barry Menzies,Managing Director of MIDEL, the global producer of ester transformer fluids



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