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Review of Federal Programs
 for Wire System Safety

 | The Full Report | (pdf file of .88mb)


Wiring is so fundamental to our society that we often forget it is a system unto itself. The aging of a wire system can result in loss of critical functions in equipment powered by the system or in loss of critical information regarding the operation of certain parts of the equipment. Either result can jeopardize public health and safety and lead to catastrophic equipment failure or to smoke and fire. Consequently, the safety of the nation's wire systems is an issue of major importance to all of us.

The aging of wire systems was first recognized as an issue of national concern in commercial aviation. Through efforts underway at various federal agencies, however, it has become apparent that aging wiring is an issue that extends far beyond aviation.

With this realization in mind, the Office of Science and Technology Policy has expanded the focus of wire system safety initiatives beyond aircraft into other areas, including consumer products, homes and other buildings, nuclear power plants, public transit, and railroads. This expansion of focus led to the creation of the "Wire System Safety Interagency Working Group" (WSSIWG) as a task?oriented subgroup of the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on Technology. Chapter 1, "Introduction" describes the creation of the WSSIWG and the preparation of this report.

The WSSIWG serves as the internal deliberative body of the NSTC on wire system safety Science and Technology policy, programs, investment priorities, and direction for the Executive Branch. In support of its mission, the WSSIWG has prepared this report to document current federal programs in-and recommend strategies for-improving wire system safety. The report will also serve as a benchmark for interagency efforts to optimize government research and will facilitate the formulation of a national strategy for wire system safety.

Safety issues related to electrical wire systems are discussed in Chapter 2, "Potential Wire Safety Issues." During normal service life, all wire systems are subject to aging. If such aging causes a loss of critical functions or information, it can jeopardize public health and safety and even lead to catastrophic failure. Specific issues of concern include damage caused to wire systems by environmental stresses, improper installation, mishandling during routine maintenance, and the accumulation of aged wiring in buildings and other structures.

Chapter 3, "Current Practices" features an agency?by?agency review of the methods federal agencies are using to manage aging wire systems for which they have regulatory or operational responsibility. These current practices flow from-and are limited by-the current state of wire systems in terms of design, installation, diagnostic technology and maintenance. In general, they fall into the following categories:

  • Conformance with applicable regulations, codes, and standards.
  • Training of inspectors and maintenance personnel.
  • Inspection, assessment, and maintenance of wire systems.
  • Engineering improvements, including modification or modernization.
  • Safety investigations.
  • Analysis of wire system data.
  • Exchange of technical information between agencies.

Studies focused on wire system safety that are currently underway or planned by federal agencies are summarized in Chapter 4, "Current Science & Technology Initiatives." The goals of these initiatives are to identify precursors to failure, predict problems, preserve integrity and function, and ensure the continued safety of wire systems.

Chapter 5, "Analysis of Current Practices and S&T Initiatives," finds that the federal agencies have the following common issues and needs regarding aging wire systems. The findings from the analysis are as follows:

  1. Faulty wire systems pose a risk to public health and safety and may lead to failure of essential functions and even to smoke and fire.

  2. Managing aging wire systems is extremely time-consuming.

  3. Inspection, testing, and maintenance of wire systems is a technical challenge. In most applications, wire systems are not inspected or tested-other than by visual inspection-unless an electrical defect exists.

  4. Most diagnostic procedures currently in use for an electrical system can detect only "hard failures" that result in serious deterioration or complete loss of electrical integrity. Today's diagnostic procedures cannot detect and locate slight deterioration-such as chafing- before it results in system failure.

  5. Knowledge about how wire systems age and how they fail is limited.

  6. There are limitations to electrical codes and standards. Those pertaining to fixed structures (buildings) have historically governed only design and installation and, thus, have tended to lead to a "fit and forget" approach to wire systems.

  7. Wire systems are becoming more complex with increasing computerization of operations and of providing information about those operations.

  8. Wire system maintenance is very expensive, and the lack of access to detailed wiring maintenance data has historically limited funding to address wire systems issues unless a major system breakdown occurs.

  9. Current practices flow from-and are limited by-the current state-of-the-art of wire system technology in terms of design, installation, diagnosis, and maintenance.

The final chapter of the report is Chapter 6, "Conclusions and Recommendations." Based on the analysis of current practices and initiatives, this report concludes that wire system safety is an important public health and safety issue that transcends government agencies.

Aging occurs in all parts of all man-made devices and structures. Wire systems, which are an integral part of virtually all these devices and structures, are themselves subject to aging. While there is a tendency to ignore wire systems, there is a pervasive need to manage aging wire systems so that they continue to function safely.

The government has developed regulations, codes, and standards and both industry and the government have developed operational practices that maintain a high degree of safety. However, as they continue to age and become ever more complex, there needs to be a higher priority given to wire systems and a more proactive stance in their management.

Four basic strategies are necessary to improve wire system safety:

  • Altering the perception of wire systems.
  • Increasing collaboration between industry, academia, and the government.
  • Improving the management and functionality of wire systems.
  • Improving wire system technology.

Specific recommendations are proposed to implement each of these strategies. These recommendations along with the common issues discussed in this report should serve as catalysts for forging a strong partnership to revolutionize the way the nation manages its wire systems.

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