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Mobile Devices in Hazardous Areas

A white paper dealing with some of the issues and myths vs. realities of manufacturing and using phones, tablets and other mobile devices in potentially hazardous areas.

With the explosion of personal digital devices and BYOD in the workplace, and an increasing demand for productivity, it is not surprising that there has been an increasing demand to take mobile devices into the most arduous of environments, including those which are exposed to potentially flammable gas or dust hazardous. Many manufacturers of rugged devices have sought to move into this space, and still others have tried ways and means to place cases around devices in an effort to meet the rigorous standards imposed on devices that are mandated for the use of electrical equipment in these potentially hazardous environments.

What follows is a consolidation of much of the detail that we routinely explain to those looking for assistance, and at the same time, a debunking of many of the current myths that prevail, which can be huge pitfalls along the journey to making an accurately informed decision. Some of these issues or queries include:

Explosion Elements
  • Is there an intrinsically safe case for my Apple™ or Samsung™ device?
  • If I put my device in a water proof case, the gas / dust can't get in and it's safe... right?
  • Why can't I find a i5/17 enterprise Windows laptop (or tablet) for Zone 1?
  • I've seen an ex-certified item on an overseas website; can I use it here in Australia?
  • Can you tell me which level of safety (or zone) I need?

Before we go on, a few disclaimers about the material provided:

This page is intended to provide general information only, and is not in any way specific to particular situations or circumstances. You should always consult with and follow the regulations of your workplace under the guidance of a suitably qualified and endorsed hazardous area assessor or compliance officer before using any electrical equipment in a potentially hazardous area.

Secondly, this is not meant to be an engineering discussion paper. If you're looking for a guide to the standards and principles behind hazardous area certification in general, you may wish to take a look at our separate Tek-Tip on Hazardous Area Certification. Should you find any errors or omissions with this document, please notify us, and we will do our best to include your suggestions where relevant.

With that said, if you're the cheating kind, or don't want the detail, you can skip to the end and get the answers to the questions. If not, please read on...

The Devil in the Detail

The utopia in every technicians world is BYOD for hazardous areas, or at very least the ability to have today's technology available in their workplace, which just happens to be a gas processing plant or coal mine. The current reality seems to be very far from that, with large, cumbersome devices that appear to be seriously over-engineered. So why is this are of mobile devices in hazardous areas so difficult? Well as often, the devil is in the detail... and particularly so, with ex certified mobile devices.

There have undoubtedly been some huge advances in technology recently, allowing today's smartphones and tablets to have the computing power of PC's or laptops, while thinner and lighter, with battery systems that allow them to run far longer than ever before. All of these advances have also encouraged manufacturers of rugged devices to look at ways to bring this technology into some of the most difficult of environments, and none more so that that of potentially explosive atmospheres, otherwise known as ex areas.

In taking this step however, there are few who have succeeded, and many who have failed. Some of those failures have never reached the market, due quite correctly to the stringent requirements around the testing of devices intended for such use. Others have made it past this step, only to be confronted by the ultimate test, the client's ability to use it. After all, there is no purpose in developing a device that is expected to be mobile, but you need a trolley to shift it!

So given that many buyers of business devices are IT professionals, and whatever you choose, an ex certified mobile device isn't going to be cheap, what do you need to look out for:

The Protection Concept used to render the device 'safe':

There are many ways or concepts that can be employed to make an item safe for use in ex areas. Many of these obviously wouldn't suit mobile devices, like drowning them in oil. In the main, there a three that are employed, each with their own advantages and issues:

Flameproof Enclosure (Ex d)

Using this concept, the device is placed in an enclosure that is designed to withstand the force of any internal explosive event, and vent the energy or 'flame' through pathways that are so small, that it cannot reach the potentially flammable atmosphere around it.

Pro's: 

It's a relatively easy solution to manufacture and the case can form part of the rugged protection required to meet the standards.
Repairs can be completed relatively easily as the case can be removed by a suitably qualified person, and then replaced after the repair event.

Con's: 

For mobile devices that need to be charged, unless a purpose built charging port is fitted to the case, opening the case to access the charge port must be done by a suitably qualified person, otherwise the opening of the case in any way voids the certification.
If the enclosed device was not designed by the original manufacturer to be enclosed in a case that does not allow any air to cool the unit, you stand a good chance of the device overheating, especially in higher ambient temperatures.
Weight is always an issue due to the added weight of the case around the existing device.

Powder filling (Ex p)

Using this concept, the device is placed on a shaker table and very fine powder is inserted into the device so that all components are essentially 'drowned' in dust to the point that no air can enter the unit, rendering it impossible for a fault to result in an ignition of the potentially flammable atmosphere around it.

Pro's: 

Provided the standard rugged device is suitable, there is no requirement for internal device or circuit modifications.

Con's: 

The device must be intact at all times, as even the slightest leak of powder allows air into the unit, so inspections of operational devices must be extremely vigilant.
Repair time frames easily blow out, as in addition to the actual repair time, all of the dust must be removed from the device and then reinserted after the repair event, causing delays of days, rather than hours.
Chaffing of the internal components by the powder is an issue unless they are suitably protected
Weight can be an issue due to the added powder.

Intrinsic Safety (Ex i)

Using this concept, the currents and voltages used and stored within the device are highly regulated to the point at which there is insufficient energy to cause an ignition of any external gas or dust within the limitations to which the device is certified. Different classes of intrinsic safety specify the types of hazardous gases or dust atmospheres in which the equipment can be used.

Pro's: 

All device modifications are internal, so if the ex unit is based on an existing commercial device, the size and weight variations are limited to the requirements to withstand the required testing & if purpose built, can be even further reduced.
Battery life is exceptional due to the nature of the protection concept.

Con's: 

The power available for large display screens or hungry processors is not available.
Specialist circuits must be employed to safeguard the device from any external electrical event when charging.

The pedigree of the manufacturer and certifying body:

While this isn't generally an oversight when commercial IT decisions are made for rugged or business machines, it's surprising how often ex devices are purchased on specification or compliance requirements alone, without any thought for the quality of the underlying device. This is especially the case, if the device has been purpose built by a relatively new manufacturer. Ask yourself:

  • How long has the company been manufacturing ex devices?
  • Where was it certified - is the ex certificate from a reputable test house, and do I trust the country of origin?

Just as there are in the commercial world there are brands you'd rather avoid, the same applies to products from manufacturer's that come and go, or test houses in countries where standards aren't as vigilant. There's been more than one case of a certificate having been withdrawn for an ex device, leaving the customer unable to use the device in any ex area.

The reality of use:

Producing portable devices for Zone 0 applications is extremely difficult and the need for workers to operate in these dangerous conditions is generally kept to an absolute minimum for obvious reasons. Areas where potentially explosive liquids, gases or dust are being produced, refined or where some repeated contact is likely are generally classified as Zone 1. Conversely, examples of Zone 2 areas are storage areas, maintenance workshops and other ancilliary areas adjacent to the main production areas.

When considering portable mobile devices in these areas, the likely hood of their increased use in instances of emergency must be taken into consideration, as a Zone 2 area potentially becomes Zone 0 very quickly! Particular attention and training needs to be made to this aspect of the actual use of certain mobile devices such as phones or tablets, and their potential for use in such scenarios.

and finally to 'The Answers':

Hopefully the above has been helpful in answering some of your questions in this area. If you've read all the way through, you should already know the answers to the questions at the top of the page, however if you've cheated and pressed the link, here are our answers to those questions:

  • The 'intrinsically safe' case - does it really exist?

NO As you would have seen above, intrinsic safety is about limiting the currents within the device so that it is incapable of holding or generating sufficient energy to cause an explosive event to occur. The case you are considering is flameproof (exd), which if you think about it long enough, raises two questions: One - was my device designed to be put inside a case with limited air to cool it? Two - how do I ensure the flameproof case stays intact if I'm openeing it every day to charge my device? Unless the mobile device has been manufactured, or re-manufactured to exist within the confines of a case, and can be charged without opening that case, putting devices in flameproof cases is inherantly a bad idea.

  • If I put my device in a water proof case, the gas / dust can't get in and it's safe... right?

NO Waterproof cases aren't designed to suppress the heat and flame from a defect in your device. Google 'Samsung Note 7' & you'll quickly realise the issue here. In addition, most waterproof cases are designed to allow you to submerse your device in water. Given that your device needs a flow of air around it to keep it cool, putting it in an airtight case without any water around the case to cool it is probably going to increase your chances of it overheating.

  • I've seen an ex-certified item on an overseas website, can I use it here in Australia?

PossiblyIf the manufacturer holds a conformity certificate to IECEx, then the item will generally meet the standards for use in most hazardous area gas and dust applications in Australia. If the device is has no conformity certificate listed on the IECEx website, you will need to request a qualified hazardous area inspector or assessor to perform a conformity assessment to determine whether the standards and methods used in the original certification are deemed to conform with those demanded for use in Australia. If successful, they may be able to grant a Conformity Assessment Document (CAD) permitting you to use the device within specific parameters.

  • Can you tell me whether I should purchase a Zone 1 or Zone 2 device?

NO Equipment manufacturers or agents do not have the requisite site experience and cannot determine the risk attributed to a site or plant area. You should always consult a qualified hazardous area assessor, with experience of the particular risk profile of the site, to determine the correct Zone rating for installed and mobile equipment to be used in a particular area. Keep in mind that unless there are specific logistical barriers in place between differently zoned areas, mobile devices are inherantly 'mobile', as they are carried by personnel. As a Zone 2 area instantly becomes a Zone 1 (or Zone 0) area when flammable gas or dust is actually present, and mobile devices are often called upon in times of emergency, using a mobile device with the highest safety protections is something we highly encourage.

We hope this Tek Tip has been helpful to your understanding of Hazardous Area Certification and how it relates to mobile devices specifically. If you'd like further assistance, please don't hesitate to contact us.