From the skills and training of medical staff members to the sensitive equipment and sterile measures that are used on patients, hospitals are synonymous with efforts to save lives and improve health and well-being. The greatest threats to sensitive life-saving equipment are chronic intermittent utility power issues and frequent lightning strikes. These latter issues can be assisted by installing the proper surge protection.
“At different times in my life,” notes an anonymous spokesperson, “and for various reasons, I have been in situations where I saw my father, another member of my family and a friend’s child on life support machines. The idea that a power surge could have crippled the equipment that was keeping them alive at the time is truly terrifying.”
And this, in a nutshell, sums up exactly why hospitals so urgently need to be safe from equipment failure caused by power surges, including those that may be related to lightning strikes.
Julienne Puttkammer, who is part of the Technical Team at DEHN AFRICA, the local subsidiary of DEHN, a globally active electrotechnical company offering comprehensive services, products and solutions in the field of surge protection, lightning protection and safety equipment, says, “When we look at the importance of protecting hospitals from electrical surges and/or lightning strikes, the preservation of human life is usually of paramount importance. As with data centres, when it comes to hospitals and their sensitive electronic equipment, there are two main types of risk when it comes to electrical power surges, namely lightning strikes, both direct and indirect hits; and switching surges.
“Switching surges in turn can be external, coming in from the power utility itself, or internal, potentially caused by the switching of a cooling system’s inductive load or possibly generator switching over from the utility supplier.”
Puttkammer notes that because life support systems and other types of electronic monitoring equipment in hospitals are so important, they all run off battery operated uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems. “These UPS systems reduce the chances of down-time significantly, and in fact, many steps are taken electrically to make sure that systems are always on, and both available and stable. However, there is always the risk of surges and so surge protection is desirable, as it will complement and round off the whole protective system for optimal results, meaning ensuring a constant electrical supply. In short, you want the surge protection to try and make it infallible.
“When we consider town planning in its broader scheme, as per IEC 62305, the best protection should always be implemented in hospitals to mitigate the risk. When we at DEHN AFRICA carry out a risk assessment, we zone the areas of the hospital into different parts, and distinguish between offices, waiting room areas, theatres and intensive care units (ICUs), for example. While all the areas of a hospital, in general, need protection from power surges, theatres and ICUs obviously carry supreme importance.”
Puttkammer notes that South Africa is well-known for being able to boast hospitals that are able to offer world-class care, both in the public as well as the private sectors. Nonetheless, some of the country’s hospitals still feature some unique risks and challenges when it comes to surge protection.
He says, “In the past few years, we know that these risks have included load shedding schedules, and from the perspective of nature, parts of the country are habitually at risk of lightning strikes due to being in high lightning strike density areas. On top of this, hospitals are larger buildings in general and as such are more susceptible to direct lightning strikes.
“Additionally, some of the country’s hospitals are situated in ageing buildings. These older buildings often have inadequate surge protection – even if they do have lightning protection installations - and this needs to be addressed. When existing hospitals are upgraded, the weaknesses of the older system can be revealed and this is where the need to improve the whole system can arise.
“Such upgrades to the hospital itself, which then bring to attention the need to upgrade existing lightning and surge protection systems, include the building of additional hospital wings, or the addition of rooftop PV systems to supplement the electricity source from the power utility, or upgrades to the cooling systems.”
South Africa is known to be a country in which lightning strikes and surge voltages cause a high risk of personal and physical harm or damage to electrical and operational systems. “In addition to damaging critical patient care equipment, the destruction that lightning and power surges can cause to electrical and operational systems can also be very costly to repair or replace. Ensuring that hospitals are equipped with fit-for-purpose lightning protection systems is therefore of critical importance. Today’s modern hospitals are generally built with state of the art equipment, but the need to address lightning and surge protections in older hospitals in South Africa remains crucial,” concludes Puttkammer.