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Could the ATL Airport Power Outage  Have Been Prevented?

Could the ATL Airport Power Outage Have Been Prevented?
The December 2017 power outage in Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport, caused a huge amount of chaos in its wake. The official tally of how much the 11-hour blackout cost is yet to be determined but is estimated to be hundreds of millions of dollars when totaling the costs thrust upon the airport, airlines and consumers. Aviation experts have referred to the expenses as “mind-blowing.”
The kicker: It could have easily been avoided. There are ways to prevent failures like this from escalating with an investment far less expensive than this catastrophic outcome.

What Happened
The power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson airport was caused by a fire in an underground electrical facility, which also caused the redundant back-up power system to fail. The fire and resulting power outage created a chain reaction that affected all operations in Atlanta’s airport, including an estimated 30,000 travelers. People stuck in dark terminals scrambled to figure out what to do next, while planes full of travelers waiting for take-off were instead stuck on the tarmac for hours, eventually running out of gas, food and drinks before passengers were evacuated. The ripple was felt across the country as more than 1,000 flights in and out of Atlanta were cancelled on the day of the outage alone. It took days to return to normal operations.

While still under investigation, Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers stated the fire was likely caused by a faulty switchgear.

How to Catch Early Warning Signs
Some fires combust quickly, leaving little time to react. But it’s likely the electrical fire that led to the blackout at Hartsfield-Jackson airport would have shown early warning signs and left plenty of time for intervention.
Georgia Power’s initial statement did not explain what caused the switchgear to become “faulty.” The fault may have happened instantly, or could have occurred gradually over time due to age or lack of maintenance; it may be attributed to long term overload or the presence of moisture or water. all of which could have caused the fire. Other factors for consideration include failure due to original manufacture, installation or abuse.

A fire typically indicates a long-term issue with a failing component, a loose connection, water or an overload. All electrical wiring vibrates and can become loose over time, due to expansion and contraction under load changes. Wear-and-tear can cause switch gears to become carbonized or pitted.
Georgia Power said it conducts visual and infrared inspections on the equipment in the tunnel every 12 to 18 months. While scheduled inspections may reveal flaws and allow for preventative maintenance, problems do not abide by a calendar. Instead, equipment failures can arise and escalate unpredictably - such as the situation at the airport.

Instead of relying on routine inspections, the key is to utilize 24/7 real-time monitoring via IoT (Internet of Things) sensors placed on vital equipment. When internet-enabled sensors collect data outside of the normal range, alerts are generated for maintenance engineers long before a major failure occurs. This allows maintenance personnel to intervene before things escalate and cripple an entire facility.

Temperature and moisture sensors can detect the top two early warning signs most likely to have indicated the issues present at the airport before the situation escalated, and would be the easiest to install, connect and monitor. Current draw and ground fault monitoring could also be used to detect early warning signs, but temperature and moisture make the most economic sense.

Temperature above the normal range is a symptom that always warrants immediate attention, as it is almost always an indicator that a part failure, or a load related failure, is eminent. Traditional, calendar-based inspections of electrical systems are typically done using thermal imaging sensors, during which “hot spots” can be detected and repaired. IoT thermography devices, temperature sensors, and current sensors can easily monitor equipment and detect when hot spots arise in real time. Water intrusion can create conditions that will cause fires in electrical systems, as moisture and electricity do not mix.

The Easy, Inexpensive Solution
Internet-enabled sensors designed specifically for preventative maintenance are readily available, low cost, cloud based and monitored 24/7. The really mind-blowing part: The monthly cost associated with IoT sensors averages about $2 per sensor. That means the combined cost of IoT sensors and 24-7 monitoring would have cost significantly less than the damage incurred by the blackout - by at least a million-fold.

While water and temperature are most likely the earliest symptoms of the problem at the airport, Internet-enabled sensors are not limited to monitoring these two symptoms. The only failure that IoT monitoring may not have prevented would be a significant energy surge. However, the systems should have been protected against this kind of surge with normal resettable overload devices.

Robert Thiel is a project manager with SOMAX, and while he is not privy to specific details of the airport fire, he has been monitoring coverage of the investigation and can offer his expert opinion based on his experience with IoT and preventative maintenance.