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Neil Bibby talks with… Dr Peter Meikle, Xtralis Pty Ltd

I sat down for a pleasant chat with Peter Meikle about where we have come from and where we are going with Aspirating Smoke Detectors (ASD) in particular the Very Early Smoke Detection Apparatus (VESDA) range of ASDS.

Dr Peter Meikle is currently VP of Business Development but has occupied senior leadership roles in Applications Engineering, Strategic Marketing, Product Line Management, Solutions and Competition at Xtralis Pty. Ltd. He has over 20 years experience in developing the market for Aspirating Smoke Detector. At Xtralis Peter has been responsible for Product and Market development activity for the VESDA range of ASD systems over a period that has seen ASD evolve from a niche technology to a mainstay of the fire detection industry. Peter has spoken at conferences globally including AFAA, Fire Australia and AIM.

You may ask why is the Asia Pacific Fire magazine featuring a specific product. The answer is simple. VESDA was conceived, born and grew up in Australia and we don’t celebrate our successes enough. With the help of Rob Llewellyn employed with the Post Master Generals office in the early stages of VESDA and Wikipedia I have put this history together

In 1970 the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) used a nephelometer* to carry out research into forest fires, sampling smoke while flying over fires, David Packham and Len Gibson effectively used the first ASD. Subsequently, the Australian Postmaster-General’s Department (later becoming Australia Post and Telstra) engaged CSIRO to investigate technologies that could prevent service interruption due to fire. After selecting a test site to carry out research, CSIRO suggested that the nephelometer should be used as the benchmark for the fire tests. This was installed to monitor smoke levels within the return-air ducts of a mechanical ventilation system.

At the conclusion of several weeks of testing, it was discovered that there was no commercially available fire detection technology suitable for preventing damage to telephone equipment. One technology that did show great promise however was the nephelometer itself. This was developed further by AWA laboratories in South Australia.

In 1979, Xtralis, then IEI Pty Ltd followed by Vision Systems Pty Ltd, produced and sold an air sampling device they called VESDA. The company redesigned the detector in 1982 to provide the reliability, features, size and reduced cost for export markets. ASD systems have gained popularity due to their ability to sense smoke long before a catastrophic incident. From 1970 the system went from an instrument the size of your desk to the mid 70s where it was the size of a suit case and then a lunch box in the early 80s. With this came significant improvements in air aspiration and the detection software.

*A nephelometer is an instrument for measuring concentration of suspended particulates in a liquid or gas colloid. A nephelometer measures suspended particulates by employing a light beam and a light detector set to one side(often 90°) of the source beam.

Why ASD?
ASD design corrects shortcomings of conventional smoke detectors by using sampling pipe with multiple holes. The air samples are captured and filtered, removing any contaminants or dust to avoid false alarms and then processed by a centralized, highly sensitive laser detection unit. If smoke is detected, the systems alarm is triggered, and signals then are processed through centralized monitoring stations within a few seconds.

Unlike passive smoke detection systems including spot detectors, ASD systems actively draw smoke to the detector through bore holes within a piping system that runs throughout the protected area. ASD systems incorporate more than one level of alarm, generally configurable. This allows an ASD system to provide very early warning of an event, prompting investigation at the earliest smouldering stage of a fire when it is easily addressed. Other alarm levels may be configured to provide fire alarm inputs to fire systems as well as releasing suppression systems. ASD alarm sensitivities are configurable and can be programmed to levels ranging from thousands of times more sensitive than a conventional detector, to much less sensitive. The detectors work best in non-volatile environments. They can also be used in computer cabinets to alert users to the overheating of computer cables or individual computer components.

ASDs are suitable for environments where a highly sensitive rapid smoke detection capability is required. This makes them suitable in clean rooms; areas which contain goods easily damaged by fire, such as tobacco smoke, electronic rooms and highly flammable liquid and gases. Often, normal point detectors will recognise the danger too late, as smoke often does not reach the ceiling quick enough for a fire to be detected in a timely fashion.

As they can be easily hidden, pipe networks are suitable in environments where point detectors can be considered aesthetically displeasing, such as offices, apartments and hotel rooms. This factor also makes them suitable in locations where point detectors can be easily tampered with, such as in correctional facilities.

Despite their high sensitivity ASDs can be used in dusty or dirty environments as long as correct design, installation and maintenance processes are followed. Most ASD products can accommodate a broad range of environments and applications – from both confined and open spaces to the cleanest or dirtiest environment, including telecomm, control rooms, waste treatment, mining and more.

Beijing Water Cube protected by VESDA.

Beijing Water Cube protected by VESDA.

Where do we go with ASDs in the future, Peter?
Aspirating smoke detection is the fastest-growing detection area, and we are the fastest-growing company in that area. We will continue to exploit our existing technologies, and we have a number of others in the pipeline that are just as important. We will be further developing our VESDA-E platform to try and further work out the best ways of extracting and presenting the data it produces. We want to turn something that in the past has been a grudge-buy into something that actually provides real return on investment.

Market share in China is up to 80% – Why?
There are two aspects to that. Firstly, we have been present in China for quite a long time and we have gone to the trouble of having our products approved to the local codes and standards. We have also worked with various design institutes to perfect our offering for various applications. The design authorities tend to be separated into vertical markets. They have criteria for specific design applications, which we have had to adhere to. There are also the over-arching standards like CCCf that we have secured for our products as well.

Secondly, we have a second, indigenous brand specifically in China that we acquired several years ago, called FMST. This exists because there are particular commercial pressures in China that need to be met, and there is also a desire for local content. Having the dual brand strategy, combining our worldwide VESDA brand and the local, market-leading, FMST means Xtralis has the two leading brands in that market.

What innovation can we expect for Xtralis?
The latest innovations in Xtralis smoke detection provide accurate Very Early Warning(VEW) of fire events in the presence of high levels of nuisance alarms sources. Being able to distinguish between substances such as dust, smoke, and diesel, could considerably reduce the time needed to accurately identify, verify, and deal with an incipient event, mitigating loss. Similarly, the ability to “fuse” data, such as the presence of smoke, different gas species, would be a valuable decision support in emergencies. Reducing nuisance alarms is essential to enhancing or restoring the effectiveness of responders who are consuming valuable resources attending nuisance alarms.

Addressability is a useful attribute of a fire system however there has always been a trade-off between Early Warning (EW) and addressability. Addressability combined with VEW is another new innovation. ASD systems with addressability to up to 120 detection points will be able to provide VEW of the exact location of an incident in facilities such as high-rise buildings, educational campuses and hospitals, aiding evacuation, and minimising loss and downtime. These systems provide cost-effective VEW addressable detection with superior performance, utility and reduced operational expenditure. In addition, earlier and specific warning enhances situational awareness.

Decision support, response and remote diagnostics are aided by advancements in wired and wireless communications allowing off-site monitoring using Ethernet connections or mobile applications. The combination of specific, enriched and aggregated data, very early warning and improved connectivity enables integration of intelligent detection to building management and other systems, including remote monitoring and verification, such that data from a multitude of sources can be used to create true, actionable information on threats as well as providing input to Building Management and other occupant comfort, and energy saving systems.

Summing Up
All of this came from a couple of CSIRO scientists in a plane over forest fires sampling smoke in the early 1970s combined with a need to protect our telecommunication systems from fire and get early warning of a fire in its incipient phase. From this small start a significant industry has grown in our region. Today ASD technology has gone mainstream and is widely accepted by industry experts and players. Applications continue to grow as the world becomes more conscious of fire safety standards.

For more information, go to www.xtralis.com

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Dr Peter Meikle is VP Business Development for Xtralis Pty Ltd.

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