Just what are Intrinsic Safety Barriers?

In your industry, you may have heard of Intrinsic Safety barriers, commonly known as I.S. barriers.  But what are they, exactly?

I.S. barriers are protection devices for electrical equipment such as gas detectors, fire detectors, alarms etc mounted in a hazardous area.  They protect equipment from current surges, which would otherwise run the risk of turning the equipment into an ignition source – disastrous when the detector is in an area where there may be explosive gases.

A good analogy is a steam engine with a pressure relief whistle – when the engine is under too much pressure, it’s relieved through the whistle by literally letting off steam.

How do they work?

I.S. barriers work by limiting the energy available to the I.S. device.  Here at Crowcon, we use two types of I.S. barriers – zener barriers and galvanic isolators.

Zener barriers contain zener diodes which divert any excess energy to earth – so you need to make sure that there’s an intrinsically safe earth point available.  When you don’t have an earth point, you can use a galvanic isolator, which provides electrical isolation between the hazardous area and the safe area circuits via a transformer.

When do you need to use them?

Basically, when you’re using certified devices that use the I.S. protection method.  If your device uses this method, you’ll see the following in their ATEX and IECEx certificates:

  • ‘ia’ or ‘ib’ in their certification classification
  • For example – Ex ia IIC T4 Ga (the classification for our Xgard Type 1 fixed detector)

Some products might use more than one protection method – a common example is I.S. and flameproof protection.  In these cases, the product is unlikely to require the use of an external I.S. barrier.  However, as always, we recommend that you consult your product manual for guidance.

How do you use them?

I.S. barriers should be located between the devices in the hazardous area and the control equipment (installed in a safe area).  The I.S. barrier needs to be within the safe area.

The ATEX certificate for the I.S. device will stipulate acceptable parameters for the I.S. barrier.

When should they be avoided?

Detectors which don’t use the ‘intrinsic safety’ method of protection shouldn’t be used with  an I.S. barrier.

For example, the Xgard type 5 uses the flameproof (Exd) method of protection – so it doesn’t need an I.S. barrier.  However, not all versions of the Xgard have flameproof protection, so do need an I.S. barrier – it all boils down to the product you’re using.

When your detector and control equipment are both installed in the safe area, you don’t need I.S. barriers.

One thing you should remember – using an I.S. barrier with a detector that doesn’t use the intrinsic safety method of protection doesn’t make the detector intrinsically safe.

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