Health and safety is one of the oldest HVAC concerns. Fire safety and public health drastically improved the quality of life amongst ancient peoples, through the construction of innovative HVAC systems. Working with HVAC machinery can greatly simplify certain tasks, but also leaves room for dangerous workplace accidents. With the Industrial Revolution, HVAC machinery became much larger and more complex, and the need for safety became a much more prominent concern. Topics in this category deal with the concern for human safety in and out the HVAC and the general well-being and healthiness of the population.

Further, the fire and life safety systems within high-rise buildings, as defined by the International Building Code (IBC) Section 403, serve to notify occupants of an emergency, suppress or control an active fire, evacuate or manage smoke in a fire area, and pressurize exit stairs for safe exit. There are many active and passive systems that provide life safety to occupants in high-rise buildings. Often they are integrated or work in unison to provide the safety intended. It is important to understand how they relate to each other in order to provide a proper approach to the design and installation of these systems.

HVAC cooling off and fall has arrived, it’s a good time to circle back and check on the safety of the system. The most of electrical fires happen in small family dwellings during excess cold or hot due to an overloaded in the use of heating and cooling HVAC appliances. These fires are typically sparked by a malfunction in the wires. Bad electrical connections are the number one cause of these kinds of fires in HVAC systems. It’s more common to have a furnace within city limits and to have a heat pump outside city limits. If either of these fail, they can cause the HVAC system to overheat leading to a potential fire. 15% of house fires start from heating equipment in the cold climate. Make sure outdoor heat pump units and furnace units are free of any debris. Most heat pump systems have an air handler that is usually equipped with an emergency heat kit, or auxiliary heat. The air handler and the auxiliary heat kit are usually located inside in a closet or an attic, very much like a furnace.

Auxiliary heat is supplemental heat strips that come on to help the heat pump heat the home more quickly. Auxiliary heat can also be engaged when the heat pump is in defrost mode, on especially cold nights. The HVAC system that runs year round mainly producing cooling in the summer season and keeping warm in the winter season. Neglecting to update or replace old or broken parts will shorten its life span and can cause major headaches down the road. Not to mention old parts can break down and cause overheating, electrical failure and heavily increase the fire risk.

How to avoid HVAC fire hazards

While it is possible for HVAC systems to catch fire randomly, regular maintenance as the best way to prevent instances of damage, leakage, or circuitry problems. Fire prevention does not begin and end with authorized inspections. To ensure the safety of the HVAC system, it is recommended that an active role in promoting safety.

  •       Prioritize control of any HVAC equipment used for smoke control so that the fire alarm control is the highest level of priority. This will override any other control signals to allow for the required airflow quantity for exhaust/makeup air, life safety damper closure and opening, and required unit shutdown. This may require bypassing hands-off automatic (HOA) or variable frequency drive (VFD) controls when life safety functions occur.
  •       Each HVAC item that is required for smoke control or life safety systems (air handling unit smoke detectors, fire/smoke or smoke dampers, stair pressurization fans, smoke exhaust fans) may require a dedicated wiring connection to the fire alarm system. This is a parallel path from the HVAC control system if the fire alarm system is used for life safety control of the building management system (BMS). The BMS can monitor these connections, but no control can be given through the BMS unless the BMS is listed for smoke control. If the BMS is used for smoke control, and is listed, then the manner in which the fire alarm and BMS share signals needs to be incorporated into the design.
Smart building system integration
Fig.1: Smoke detection and fire suppression system for building HVAC.
  •       Carefully review which type of activation is required for smoke control systems as shown Fig.1. It is activated by the fire sprinkler system or the smoke detection system. For areas such as high-rise hotel tower corridors, a common method of activation is by smoke detection in the corridor. For low-rise podium smoke control zoning, a common method of activation is through fire sprinkler water-flow.
  • If it is activated by fire sprinkler, then the sprinkler system zoning must match the smoke control zoning. Modifications to zone boundaries during construction will require modifications to sprinkler systems in the field.
  • If it is activated by smoke detector, then the detectors must be zoned to identify which units will activate the smoke control system and which will not.
  • Some properties use both fire sprinkler and smoke detection to activate the same smoke control system. In these cases, both systems need to be coordinated with zone boundaries.
  •       Coordinate zoning of HVAC equipment with the smoke control zoning. This will reduce the number of life safety dampers (smoke and combination fire/smoke) required in the system and allow proper unit shutdown and activation for a specific area without affecting other zones. Only a single zone in alarm will be affected for the active smoke control systems, but the fire alarm zone typically notifies both the area under emergency and adjacent spaces for evacuation and instruction. This is also important with fire/smoke dampers. Rather than splitting the branch ductwork within the adjacent zone, split the ductwork inside the zone to reduce the amount of fire/smoke dampers needed.
  • HVAC fans can be used for post-fire salvage duty (smoke removal) provided they are equipped with the proper accessories. The IBC lists the base requirements for post-fire salvage systems in Section 403.4.7. An amendment has been added to the code to further define the equipment requirements. These include an approved secondary source of power in addition to normal power, additional fan belts, and service factor similar to active smoke control fans. Elevated operational temperature requirements are not typically necessary for post-fire salvage systems because the fans are operated after the emergency event where they exhaust cold smoke. The designer should verify that any local amendments to the smoke removal systems have not added any requirements for equipment.
  • For smoke removal systems, dedicated fire alarm connections to the associated purge fans are not required. This control can be completed by a signal from the post-fire salvage panel (either integral to the main active smoke graphics panel or separate) to the BMS to implement the type of control that is required to achieve the 15-minute air change for both exhaust and makeup air.
  • The design should consider the benefits of using either dedicated equipment or non-dedicated equipment (HVAC fans). Dedicated fans are those used only for smoke control purposes and do not operate under normal HVAC conditions. They are typically used for stairwell pressurization and smoke exhaust systems. Because they are not used frequently they do not require as much maintenance, but they do require more frequent testing. Non-dedicated fans (HVAC dual-purpose fans) are allowed by code and can provide benefit to smoke control systems to reduce costs. They are used for normal HVAC and smoke control and can be beneficial because they are maintained more frequently. However, maintenance needs to be performed such that it does not impact the smoke control operation. This includes any changes to VFD controls. The expected temperature of smoke must also be taken into account when selecting the temperature rating for active smoke control equipment (through either UL 705 Power Ventilator listed smoke exhaust fans or by providing calculations to clarify a reduced temperature rating, which may be 200 to 250F for air handling unit fans).
  •       The International Building Code requires ductwork that penetrates fire-resistance rated walls to be protected with fire dampers, smoke dampers, or combination fire/smoke dampers. Fire dampers are less expensive to install and maintain because they do not require power and smoke detection for control. Often fire/smoke dampers are the default because it is sometimes difficult to determine what type of wall is being penetrated. The design of the system needs to take into account the type of wall and the required damper to minimize costs, both upfront and ongoing, as well as reduce the complexity of the system. The layout of the ductwork also needs to be considered to minimize the amount of dampers. It is better to make one penetration into a corridor and feed the corridor with one duct than to penetrate with several lateral branch ducts, which require more dampers.
  •       VFDs are a great way to control the amount of air required under both HVAC and smoke control functions. Most VFDs are programmable to allow set-points to be used for smoke control functions. The VFDs need to be designed and installed such that the set-points established during smoke control testing are not changed in the field due to HVAC controls or other functions. It is important to recognize the relationship that the VFD plays in both smoke control and normal HVAC use. In addition, VFDs should be located in areas that provide a level of protection to the panel so that during a fire condition, they are not impacted by the fire.
Fig.2: Fire protection system for control room.

While HVAC system catches fire randomly, it insists on regular maintenance as the best way to prevent instances of damage, leakage or circuitry problems. Fire prevention does not begin and end with authorized inspections. To ensure the safety of HVAC system, it is recommended that an authorized inspections in promoting safety as shown in Fig. 2. If the HVAC system smells burning wires, oil, gas, or any other suspicious material, immediately contact for an authorized inspection. Bad electrical connections are one of the main causes of HVAC failure and fires. Old connections tend to become loose and with the constant high demand for power, burnt and exposed wires can trigger a fire. The smell of smoke or burning plastic is a giveaway. Without performing regular maintenance, it is difficult to spot leaking fuel lines. What makes this especially hazardous is the fact that a highly flammable substance – such as oil, gas, and petroleum – is coming into contact with hot elements inside the A/C unit. The combination of heat and flammable material increases the chance of a dangerous fire. High gas pressure causes the heat exchanger to heat up. Low gas pressure can cause condensation. Both increase of risk of damage and fires. Poor workmanship or years of neglect can lead to gas leaks and bad air quality, not to mention the potential for an out of control gas furnace. This is a relatively easy problem to prevent. Stuffing creates, boxes, cleaning equipment, and a host of other materials on or near your HVAC system increases the danger of damaging the unit and causing a fire. All that junk around the unit could catch fire, damaging not just the A/C system, but a large portion of the building. To prevent this, ensure that all non-essential equipment is kept away from the unit. Clean chemicals that may react to heat or catch fire as well. The first thing to do in case of a fire is to exit the building and call for help. If possible, turn off the main power switch to the unit and the building. Alert everyone in or around the area and ensure that unsuspecting visitors do not enter the building. The best way to prevent a HVAC system fire from happening is having your unit regularly inspected and maintained by a licensed specialist. They will be able to catch any faulty wiring or problems before they can cause potentially expensive, even lethal, damage. Lack of maintenance is a huge fire hazard because you won’t know something is wrong until you smell smoke.

The best way to prevent a HVAC system fire from happening is having your unit regularly inspected and maintained by a licensed specialist. They will be able to catch any faulty wiring or problems before they can cause potentially expensive, even lethal, damage. Lack of maintenance is a huge fire hazard because it won’t know something is wrong until it smell smoke.

Dr. (Prof.) D.B. Jani,
Associate Professor at GEC, Dahod,
Gujarat Technological University, GTU,
Ahmedabad, (Education Department, State of Gujarat, India).

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