Intrinsic Safety

The I.S. Alternative

Of All the Reasons to Consider Intrinsic Safety (IS) for Your Operations, the First Is the Fact That IS Installations Reduce the Overall Risk of Explosion Through Human Error

About the Author
Ian Verhappen is an ISA Fellow and can be reached at He has 25+ years experience in instrumentation, controls and automation. Check out his Google+ profile.

Intrinsic Safety (IS) makes it possible to perform live maintenance at any point in the control loop because, by its nature, it always keeps the amount of available energy on the wire pair below the ignition point for the gases/environment in which it's installed. There are two aspects to determining the hazardous area requirements for an installation: area classification (the type of gas present and the likelihood of its being present) and the temperature classification (maximum surface temperature of the device or apparatus).

The following figure shows how area classifications are determined for North America using the class-and-division principle. The division is based on the likelihood of a specific type of gas being present at any point in time. As a rule of thumb, Division 2 assumes the potentially explosive gas is present one hour/year, while Division 0 assumes the gas is always present (Figure 1).

The second aspect of hazardous area control is the temperature rating. Figure 2 shows how the type of gas present determines the required "T-rating."

Fortunately, the majority of the hydrocarbon industry only needs to meet the T1 or T2 temperature limitations for the majority of its facilities, and this is often why the T-rating is overlooked when specifying and purchasing instruments. When we think about temperatures, we tend to be more concerned with the ambient temperature range in which the device can continue to operate.

Intrinsic safety is entity-based, meaning all the components need to be considered as a single entity. The devices in the loop also need to be treated as "simple apparatus" as defined in ISA–60079-11 (12.02.01)–2009 "Explosive Atmospheres—Part 11: Equipment Protection by Intrinsic Safety," which is summarized below:
Simple apparatus are defined as those devices in the following three categories:

  1. Passive components, including items such as switches, junction boxes, resistors and simple semiconductor devices that neither store nor generate energy. Sensors that use catalytic reaction or other electro-chemical mechanisms are not normally simple apparatus.
  2. Stored energy sources consisting of single components in simple circuits with well-defined parameters; for example, capacitors or inductors, whose energy storing values should be considered when determining the overall safety of the system.
  3. Generated energy sources; that is, thermocouples and photocells, which do not generate more than 1,5 V, 100 mA and 25 mW.

In addition to the above, the following (taken from the ISA standard) also applies to simple apparatus installations:

  • Simple apparatus shall not achieve safety by the inclusion of voltage and/or current-limiting and/or suppression devices.
  • Simple apparatus shall not contain any means of increasing the available voltage or current, for example DC-DC converters.
  • Simple apparatus located in the explosive gas atmosphere shall be temperature-classified.
  • Where simple apparatus forms part of an apparatus containing other electrical circuits, the whole shall be assessed according to the requirements of ISA–60079-11 (12.02.01)–2009.

Because with entity systems, you need to understand interaction between each component on a loop, I/O card, barrier or field device, the entity concept works well for loops with one I/O card and one field device. However, if you have multiple devices on a wire pair, as with fieldbus systems, the number of combinations that need to be verified quickly grows exponentially. This is one of the reasons most process fieldbus systems use FISCO as described in the June 2010 issue of Control (

Furthermore, intrinsically safe (IS) circuits need to be kept separate from non-IS circuits with the following minimum requirements:

  • All terminals for intrinsically safe circuits shall be separated from terminals for non-intrinsically safe circuits where intrinsic safety can be impaired by external wiring which, if disconnected from the terminal, can come into contact with conductors or components by distance or terminal location.
  • When separation is accomplished by distance, the clearance between bare conducting parts of terminals shall be at least 50 mm, including insuring that contact between circuits is unlikely if a wire becomes dislodged.
  • When separation is accomplished by locating terminals for intrinsically safe and non-intrinsically safe circuits in separate enclosures, or by use of either an insulating partition or an earthed metal partition between terminals with a common cover, the following applies:
  • Partitions used to separate terminals shall extend to within 1,5 mm of the enclosure walls or, alternatively, shall provide a minimum distance of 50 mm between the bare conducting parts of terminals when measured in any direction around the partition.
  • Metal partitions shall be earthed/grounded and shall have sufficient strength and rigidity to ensure that they are not likely to be damaged during field wiring.

The final critical element in any IS circuit is the important issue of what to do with any "extra"energy that might result in the event of a fault in the loop, such as a short circuit. Normally the answer is to run this current to ground or earth. Figure 3 shows a typical control room/interface room earthing/ground scheme.

The function of the IS ground is to provide a secure, high-integrity, low-impedance path through which fault currents will flow, while minimizing voltages seen in the hazardous area. The most likely source of high-voltage invasion is from the local distribution transformer feeding the control system and, practically speaking, the IS ground is there to shunt fault current from such an invasion back to the neutral of this transformer. It, therefore, has to be of low impedance to be the preferred path for the fault current (while the barrier fuse blows).

Why Use IS?

Now that we know the basics of the various components of an IS circuit and the associated restrictions regarding its installation, what are some of the arguments for using intrinsic safety that explain why it is so widely used in other parts of the world?

  • Cost—IS systems do not require lockable fused isolators, protected cable, special glands or explosion-proof enclosures. These lead to not only higher initial costs, but also require additional time whenever the junction box or the device needs to be opened or closed.
  • Use of unarmoured cable—The system is electrically, not mechanically protected, though mechanical protection may be desired for other reasons, such as crush resistance.
  • Fault-tolerance—IS is the only technique that remains safe after faults develop in cables and fallible components.
  • Live maintenance—IS is the only technique that permits live working without gas clearance certificates for all area classifications.
  • Personnel safety—Extra-low voltages and currents mean there is minimal risk of injury in the event of contact with bare wires.

IS "works" by reducing the power going to the field. The simpler alternative which uses diodes/resistors, is called a passive zener barrier. If a barrier introduces too much voltage drop due to too high a resistance being added to the network by the barrier, resulting in insufficient power to drive the output full scale, then you may need to use an isolator. Since isolators are separately powered, they do not present as large a load to the loop.

This happens on occasion for analog-output devices such as valves. The figure on the left shows the differences between these two alternatives.

Is intrinsic safety part of your future? Only you can decide. However, as you can see, there are a number of reasons that you should consider it when designing a new installation. With our increasing focus on safety, intrinsic safety installations reduce the overall risk of explosion through human error.  

Ian Verhappen P.Eng. is an ISA Fellow, ISA Certified Automation Professional and a recognized authority on Foundation fieldbus and industrial communications technologies.Verhappen leads global consultancy Industrial
Automation Networks Inc. Check out his Google+ profile.