The recent earthquake in Melbourne, measuring 3.8 on the Richter scale, did not cause major structural damage. But it did raise questions about whether our building services are equipped to handle such events.
A fortunate outcome
According to Victoria’s SES State Commander David Baker, his crew received only three calls for help following the quake. He mentioned, however, that it was fortunate there were no damages or consequences.
In the past five years, Victoria has experienced four other earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or greater. A 5.9 magnitude quake that occurred north of Rawson in 2021 caused some localised damage, including damage to HVAC&R equipment.
Managing Director of Eurofast James Fooks says seismic events cause a range of issues.
“Structural damage can lead to collapsed walls, floors, or ceilings, which can directly impact HVAC&R systems if the equipment or ductwork is compromised,” he says.
“Earthquakes can also disrupt power lines and electrical infrastructure, resulting in power outages. This can affect all systems that rely on electricity, including air conditioning units, fans, and pumps.
“Vibrations and shaking during an earthquake can damage mechanical components of HVAC&R systems, such as compressors, motors, bearings, and fans. This damage can impair the functionality and efficiency of the equipment.
“Shifting or collapsing structures can cause obstructions in ductwork, hindering airflow and ventilation throughout a building. This in turn can impact air quality and temperature control.
“And the movement and shaking during an earthquake can cause leaks in refrigerant lines, leading to a loss of refrigerant and impaired cooling or refrigeration capabilities.”
Is Australia prepared?
Fooks notes that as a country with a generally low seismic activity, Australia does not typically experience frequent or severe earthquakes. As a result, building codes and standards in Australia have traditionally placed less emphasis on earthquake resistance compared to countries located in active seismic zones.
“In recent years, however, there has been an increased recognition of the need to consider earthquake resilience in building design and construction practices across the country, including the HVAC&R systems,” says Fooks.
“In areas with a higher seismic risk, such as parts of Western Australia and South Australia, building codes and practices may include more stringent seismic design requirements. Additionally, newer buildings generally adhere to updated building codes and benefit from improved seismic design practices compared to older structures.”
Fooks says building owners, facility managers, and HVAC&R professionals should consult local building codes, standards, and guidelines specific to their region to ensure compliance with seismic design requirements and to implement appropriate measures.
Because HVAC&R systems are typically designed to be integrated into the overall building structure, Fooks notes that when considering seismic resilience, engineers and designers take into account the potential lateral forces exerted on the building during an earthquake. This may involve using appropriate structural bracing, flexible connections, and other seismic mitigation techniques to minimise damage to the HVAC&R systems.
Equipment anchoring is another commonly used measure, as are flexible connections, such as flexible ductwork or vibration isolation mounts. And routine inspections and maintenance are also important for identifying structural weaknesses, loose connections, or potential hazards that need to be addressed to enhance the system’s earthquake readiness.
While earthquake resilience in HVAC&R systems is not a widely discussed topic now, that may be changing.
“As seismic events occur in areas that were previously considered low risk, there is growing awareness of the need to address earthquake resilience in building design and systems,” Fooks says. “Building codes and regulations may evolve to incorporate more stringent seismic design requirements and guidelines for HVAC&R systems.
“Retrofitting existing buildings to enhance their earthquake resilience, including HVAC&R systems, is also becoming an important consideration. Retrofitting measures may involve strengthening structural elements, anchoring equipment, and implementing flexible connections to improve the overall seismic performance of the building and its systems.
“Advanced seismic mitigation techniques, such as seismic isolation and energy-dissipation systems, are gaining attention. These technologies aim to minimise the transfer of seismic forces to the building and its systems, reducing the risk of damage. Integrating such systems into HVAC&R designs can improve earthquake resilience.”
Also in the area of new technology, Fooks points to advances in data analysis that have enabled more sophisticated risk assessment and modelling techniques.
“These tools can help assess the vulnerability of buildings and their systems to seismic events,” he says. “By identifying potential weak points, stakeholders can make informed decisions about retrofitting, maintenance, and emergency response planning.”
Fooks also notes the growing role of monitoring and predictive analysis, resilient power supplies, and integrating seismic resilience into the design stage of buildings.
“It’s important for building owners, facility managers, and HVAC&R professionals to stay updated on emerging trends, research, and best practices in earthquake resilience,” he says. “Collaborating with seismic and structural engineers, as well as following local building codes and guidelines, can help ensure that HVAC&R systems are adequately prepared for seismic events and can contribute to the overall resilience of buildings.”
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