Arc Resistant Windows Fact or Fiction?



“How can a crystal or polymer optic stand up to the enormous blast pressure, heat, and molten shrapnel produced by an arc flash?” This is a question that many engineers ask when they begin researching infrared windows. Part of the reason for the question is a misconception that there is an infrared viewport standard that qualifies some infrared (IR) windows as “arc resistant IR windows.”

The fact is, there is no standard for arc-resistant infrared windows, and no infrared window is capable of protecting a worker in the event of an inspection.

This paper will explore the dangers of arc flash and the forces that the resulting arc blast produces. The reader will also understand the considerable safety benefits and arc flash risk control that infrared windows provide, as well as the realistic limitations of the devices and their role in arc-resistant switchgear and MCCs.

What is an arc flash?

NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) definition of an arc flash:

“An arc flash is the sudden release of electrical energy through the air when a high–voltage gap exists and there is a breakdown between conductors.”2

The causes of arc flash are many, ranging from rodents to insulation breakdown to dust and contaminants. However, the predomination of causes is human-initiated. It occurs when the panel covers are not in place, during panel removal or reapplication, or when opening or closing equipment doors.

In less than 1/1000th of a second, the center of an arc flash can reach temperatures of 35,000? / 19427? 3 — nearly four times the temperature of the surface of the sun (roughly 9,000? / 4982?). This rapid heating causes the copper bus bar to turn from solid to plasma state in a fraction of a second, expanding 67,000 times. At that rate, a pea-sized piece of copper will expand to the size of a rail car.

This instantaneous expansion of machine parts and the surrounding air creates an “arc blast” carrying a pressure wave of thousands of pounds of force, super-heated gases, and molten shrapnel.4 The bomb-like blast can be as powerful as three sticks of dynamite blowing up just an arm’s length from the worker. It’s not surprising that victims of arc blast trauma report horrific burns, shrapnel wounds, damaged internal organs, hearing loss, blindness, and lung damage.

No Two Arc Blasts are Created Equal:

The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)  states, “it should be realized that [an arc flash] does not always behave in a repeatable manner.”5

It explains that test results can be impacted by design characteristics ranging from dimensions and structure of enclosure, partition architecture, bus bar orientation, pressure relief devices, and insulation systems. For this reason, results from tests on one system cannot be extended to another system, even if the two systems appear to be very similar.

The power of an arc blast will also vary widely depending on the amount of fault current/incident energy available. The reliability, condition, and configuration of safety devices such as current-limiting fuses and breakers can profoundly affect this. Studies have found that 22% of devices in the field operate less than optimally, and 10.5% of the units tested failed to clear the fault.6 Even the slightest reduction ineffectiveness of these devices can easily double or triple the incident energy levels of an arc flash — keep in mind these devices are designed to clear in milliseconds. Meanwhile, if a breaker fails completely, a worker could be overwhelmed with 15 to 20 times the anticipated incident energy levels.6

Arc Resistance Versus Arc Avoidance:

Every industrialized country has instituted electrical safety standards to ensure workplace safety. Most of these standards are similar to the US standard: NFPA 70E Electrical Safety in the Workplace. In fact, many, like Canada’s CSA Z462, are based in part or whole on the NFPA 70E standard. As such, many / most of these international standards will have a significant degree of focus on protecting workers from the effects of arc flash by seriously limiting the worker’s exposure to “energized electrical conductors or circuit parts” over 50 volts. Therefore, eliminating the exposure and risk is at the heart of the ANSI Z10 Risk Control Hierarchy (sometimes referred to as the “Hierarchy of Risk”).

The Risk Control Hierarchy systematically reduces risk to its lowest practicable level by prioritizing ways to mitigate a given risk. Higher priority and weight are given to methods that seek to control risk by proactive means as close as possible to the root cause. Meanwhile, lower priority is placed on reactive methods of controlling damage after an incident. Specifically, Risk Control Hierarchy ranks the most effective to least effective ways to reduce risk as follows: 7

  1. Elimination — remove the hazard
  2. Substitution — replace higher risks with lower risks
  3. Engineering Controls — reinvent ways to limit/prevent the risk
  4. Awareness — raise knowledge of risks and consequences thereof
  5. Administrative Controls — create regulations, work processes, etc.
  6. PPE — use Personal Protective Equipment as last defense

An effective electrical safety program will include components of multiple levels of risk control, including PPE, but the most prized level of control is risk elimination. With this in mind, it is not surprising that OSHA explicitly states, “…with respect to arc-flash burn hazard prevention, the general provisions for the selection and use of work practices… generally require de-energization of live parts before an employee works on or near them.” 8

Arc Flash Protection:

Suppose we accept that the best way to protect personnel from arc flash-related injury is to eliminate the hazards which might cause the arc flash. In that case, it is necessary that we proactively eliminate the risk-increasing behaviors. Specifically, we must stop the practice of allowing workers exposed to energized components, i.e., we must keep energized equipment “enclosed” and “guarded” (per NFPA 70E) whenever possible.

Using devices such as infrared windows (IR windows / infrared sight glasses) maintains the enclosed and guarded state. It allows thermographers to perform their task without creating the electrical hazard inherent in opening and closing equipment. In most cases, opening energized applications 600V and higher carries a Hazard/Risk Category (HRC) classification of three or four (on a scale of zero to four). 9 Conversely, closed panel work similar to thermography through an IR window, like reading a panel meter, only requires an HRC class zero.

NFPA specifically states that absent the introduction of electrical hazards such as those outlined in the HRC Tables, “under normal operating conditions, enclosed energized equipment that has been properly installed and maintained is not likely to pose an arc flash hazard.” 10

By removing high-risk, hazard-inducing activities, IR windows help eliminate risks and proactively protect workers by reducing risk in the most efficient manner. However, the word “protect” must be used with caution since there is not a window on the market that has been proven to offer “protection” to workers in the exceedingly unlikely event that an arc flash was to occur during an inspection.

Arc resistant switchgear and similar systems utilize engineering controls, such as barriers, compartmentalization, and pressure relief mechanisms to redirect arc flash/arc blast gasses and forces away from panels where personnel are most likely to be interacting with the equipment. In so doing, these engineering controls (in Risk Control Hierarchy terms) offer reactive protection to personnel from the arc flash/arc blast effects.

Arc Resistant Infrared Windows:

So, where did the term “arc resistant IR window come from?”

Some manufacturers claim to have an “arc resistant IR window” if that window has taken part in a test for arc-resistant switchgear — such as the tests outlined in the ANSI/IEEE C37.20.7, EIC 298, and IEC 62271-200 standards for performing arc fault testing on the switchgear. However, these standards are clear in their intention to apply only to the system of a piece of switchgear and all of the components in place at the time of the test. It implicitly does not extend any “arc resistant” ratings to the individual components which happened to be in place during the test. In fact, the standards point out that the results of the tests cannot be loosely applied to other systems outside the parameters of the one tested. Therefore, even a simple variation in components used, the geometry of the enclosure, or construction of the enclosure would require retesting to ensure that the new system would protect users.

Any attempts to extend the results of an arc resistance test to a similar but non-arc-resistant system (one that has no pressure relief mechanisms such as vents, plenums, etc.) is in clear opposition to the standard. The pressure relief system of the arc-resistant system is integral to the arc rating of the system. Without pressure mitigation, the switchgear is incapable of containing and redirecting the heat and pressures of the arc blast. In fact, it is common for a switchgear manufacturer to sell essentially the same substation assembly in a non-arc-resistant version as well as an arc-resistant version — the primary difference being that the compartments all connect to a pressure relief system.

Some infrared window consumers have been confused about IR windows undergoing arc resistance testing. As previously stated, the infrared window itself was simply a component in a complex system where all components were shown to perform to a level that allowed the pressure relief system to control and redirect the arc blast forces. Participation in such a test has been misinterpreted by some to “prove” that a particular IR window would protect an arc flash in all switchgear or other electrical equipment. In fact, the value of the test applies only to the make, model, and series of the equipment it was tested on.

IR windows are not tested to withstand unvented blasts in equipment with no arc resistance features. Yet, the vast majority (more than 90%) of equipment in the field is not arc-resistant. Unfortunately, some consumers assume that an “arc resistant IR window” has been shown to withstand arcing faults on the broad spectrum of non-arc-resistant equipment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Another source of confusion is an expectation on the part of some consumers that the IR window optic (as opposed to a window that is closed with the cover properly secured and sealed) has been proven in arc resistance tests to protect the thermographer. But these tests are performed with the protective cover closed. As stated previously, arc-resistant switchgear dramatically limits and redirects the pressure wave away from the panel where the window is installed. Even so, in these tests, the window’s optic is typically compromised. However, the blast is contained during the test because the cover is closed.

Why Use an Infrared Window?

The use of an infrared window will remove more than 99% of arc flash triggers during an infrared electrical inspection. By removing the hazards, infrared windows provide the highest level of “protection” per the Risk Control Hierarchy as prescribed by NFPA.

Unfortunately, no infrared window on the market can offer an arc-resistant or similar level of protection in the event of an arc flash incident. However, they can be an effective part of a switchgear or MCC system that is designed to redirect the heat and pressure of the arc blast away from the panel that the IR windows are attached to.

Companies that are interested in controlling the risk of catastrophic arc flash events should seriously consider the benefits that infrared windows offer:

  1. They provide a safer, more efficient work process that will allow thermographers to obtain their images and data while remaining separated from energized electrical conductors.
  2. They do not raise the risk of creating an electrical hazard and instead eliminate the typical high-risk behaviors that can make an arc flash incident.
  3. The inspection windows provide an easy way for companies and personnel to comply with regulatory (OSHA/CSA) and insurance mandates while requiring a minimum level of PPE protection.


1 CapSchell Group

2 NFPA 70E; Electrical Safety in the Workplace; Annex K.3; 2009

3 NIOSH; Arc Flash Awareness; DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2007-116D; 2007

4 NFPA 70E; Electrical Safety in the Workplace; Annex K.4; 2009

5 IEEE.37.7 Standard; Guide for Testing Metal-Enclosed Switchgear Rated  Up to 38kV for Internal arcing Faults; Section 1.2.4; 2007

6 K. Heid, R. Widup; Field Measured Total Clearing Time of Protection Devices & its Effect on Electrical Maintenance; from the Proceedings of the 2009 IEEE IAS Electrical Safety Workshop; St. Louis, MO, 2009

7 ANSI / AIHA Z10 Standard; American National Standard for Occupational Health & Safety Management Systems; 2005

8 OSHA 1910.303, Linhardt interpretation

9 NFPA 70E; Electrical Safety in the Workplace; Section 130.7(C)(9); 2009

10 NFPA 70E; Electrical Safety in the Workplace; Article 100 FPN No. 1; 2009

11 IEEE C37.20.2; IEEE Standard For Metal Clad Switchgear; Section A.3.6; 1999

Thanks to Tim Rohrer of Exiscan for permission to republish this article.

© 2011, Martin Technical. All rights reserved. Republication of any of the materials herein is expressly forbidden.