Friday, October 28, 2011

Add 'em Up and They Can Take You Down

How many of you have seen this?

An air sample is taken for a potentially hazardous environment.  Five or ten or twenty toxins show up in the analysis, but each one of them is below the level you should be concerned with according to the MSDS.  No problem, right?


Let's say it is the scene of a hazardous waste hauler where all sorts of chemicals were being transported, but each below the threshhold of concern.  Is it safe. 


Look, virtually no studies do in depth analysis of the health and safety exposure of mixtures of chemicals.  Try looking up the MSDS sheet for a mixture of styrene, toluene, and benzene.  Good luck finding one.

And according to Dennis Patrick, noted Industrial Hygienist and Safety Expert and founder of EPG Ltd., the real problem is the synergistic effects. 

The problem to be addressed by the community of experts is how to rate cominbation of chemicals.  I have my own way of doing this- I add up the totals of all the toxins, and if the aggregated number is higher than the lowest IDLH, then the whole mess is hazardous until proven otherwise.  Not everyone likes this approach, but they aren't the ones who have to be around it, either.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

HAZMAT Transport and Medical Conditions

I received a call yesterday asking my opinion on medical conditions and HAZMAT drivers.  Here's the issue I was asked about: should a driver with a medical condition that elevates their possibility of a stroke still be allowed to drive hazardous materials tankers if doctors say the patient is currently healthy?  Keep in mind that although no one can predict when a stroke can occur, if the driver has had a mini-stroke, they have an elevated chance of having another.

My opinion is that they shouldn't be allowed to drive if there is an increase in the possibility of having a stroke.  This didn't make anyone happy.  "You can't say that," I was told, "because there are other health conditions such as diabetes, etc. that also increase the possibility of a diminished capacity event for that individual."

Also, they continued, "It violates their rights by restricting their employment possibilities based on only 'statistics.'"  Sorry, but that won't bring anyone back who's been injured or killed by a hazardous materials release.

Look- hazardous materials are hazardous materials.  What's the use of strict DOT regulations if we aren't also strict when it comes to regulating drivers?  Personally, I wouldn't let anyone get behind the wheel of a truck carrying HAZMAT if they hadn't had a breathalyzer test before getting into the vehicle. 

That's not a popular idea, either.

But I like it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Looking Down the Barrel of an Infrared- Part Two

Last week I talked about some of the potential issues for Emergency Responders re build up on the Fresnel lens system in an infrared temperature gun.  Smoke & ash from fires are one set of issues, and chemical extinguishing agents are another.  Chemical vapor residues from a chemical leak (say methyl bromide, for example) can cause problems, too.  There's a fourth category for all detection & measurement equipment, but I'll address that next posting.

But how often should you clean a top notch temperature gun (say our Top Temp Gun or the Flash Point Temp Gun)?  Here's the answer from our techs:


If the following procedure is not followed, there will be an error of accuracy from 10 degrees F to 40 degrees F minimum for the readings.
  1]   EVERY unit we supply should be cleaned weekly to eliminate dust, girt and grime that will build up on the lens system.

        1a.  This can be done using a soft cloth or cotton swab with alcohol.
  2]  The advantage of the IR100_2 and the TN425 is the low temperature range of -76 to check accuracy of the unit.

       2a.  Simply fill a vessel with ice and water : check the temperature:  reading should be between  27F to 35 F.

       2b.  There should be only a drift from 32F .. 27 low and 35 high

       These readings should be within our stated accuracy.

   3] Finally, let's go beyond the lens issue...

        Sometimes dust and particulates from emergency response scenarios can be blown beyond the outer Fresnel  lens, and even  beyond the hard glass lens and right into the microprocessor.
         THIS event will cause an additional error in accuracy of 10 -20 degrees of the reading.

         There is NO WAY to take the unit apart and blow out the dust without destroying the guts of the unit.

 If the unit is too far out of whack as determined by ice water test...   then we will need to replace it ASAP.

Remember that high end infrared temperature guns are precision instruments.  Treat them like they are and they can help keep you and your team safe.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Looking Down the Barrel of an Infrared- Part One

You're looking at a Fresnel lens sysem that we use for our infrared temperature guns.  Notice the ridges along the tapering cone that lead down the barrel to the lens.

I've been hammering this theme home for a while as regards photoionization detectors, but I promised to bring it around to our infrared temperature guns and today I will,

Even though we handle 100:1 distance to spot infrared temperature guns with Class III laser sights, the situations that hazmat responders have to deal with can involve lots of smoke, dust, chemical leaks and or extinguishants.  If you're not using our Top Temp Gun, it means you'll have to be even closer.  With somebody else's infrared temp gun, say a 50:1 distance to spot ratio, you'll have to be twice as close to get a decent reading.

What is distance to spot ratio?  For a 100:1 infrared temperature gun, it means that at one hundred feet you will be measuring a circle with a 1 foot radius.  That's a tight spec.  It's a real instrument that can save lives.

But what if, during an emergency run, you use your temperature gun in a smokey environment, or while your using it, extinguisher fumes blow your way.  Or chemical fumes from a factory?

The answer is that you have to clean it, just like in the case of the PID.  Swab the ridges and the lens with isopropyl alcohol.  Most people forget to clean the ridges that lead up to the main lens.  That's a cricital mistake.  A bad mistake.  Those ridges aren't there for nothing.  They're part of the instrument's operative principle.  So clean them as often as you clean the lens.

Clean them after every emergency you take the infrared gun to.  That way you'll be sure to get more accurate readings.  How inaccurate can the readings be if the unit's lens package (including the ridges)isn't cleaned?

I'll fill you in on that next time.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Smoke- A PID Gas Detector's Worst Enemy?

PID (photoionization detectors) are generally used for the detection of volatile compounds and certain classes of toxics.  They've been around for awhile, and are generally included in every HAZMAT team's toolkit.

There has been some controversy over the impact that humidity has on their readings, with one company- Ion Science- claiming that humidity variations have a significant effect on detection suppression.  In high humidity environments that claim this suppression could be in excess of 50%, which makes humidity and serious consideration when trying to get an accurate reading out of a PID.  However, there are rumors of a new study showing that improvements in PID technology have knocked that down to the range of only 10%.

Of more concern to me is the effect of smoke on PID readings at the time of an emergency event and residual contamination on the detector cell because of the smoke and/or chemical extinguisher vapors.  In earlier postings I have stressed the importance of cleaning PID cells after a chemical event.  Now I raise the question of how much smoke or other particulate and/or condensate fumes have on the accuracy of a PID's readout.

To my knowledge, there have been no studies conducted on this issue by any of the gas detection companies or sensor manufactuerers.  I'm going to keep pushing them to look at this problem, and hope you'll push for the same.  This problem shouldn't be ignored.  After all, the responders actually are at risk in the field.  Gas detector salesman typically don't tend to show up at emergency events where toxic gases are involved.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Technical Support That Actually Helps? A Review of BW Technologies Technical Support

It seems every week I have a new experience with gas detector technical support, and for the first time on this blog, it's time to give a gas detector technical support department a gold star.

That happy smile is my face after I got off the phone.

Lets lay out my experience so other gas detector companies can learn how the pros do it.

1. When I called, a person answered the phone. Not just a person asking who do I want to be connected to, but an extremely friendly woman who sounded like she'd been waiting for my call just so she could have the joy of directing me to the correct department. I know that may sound hokey, but call the BW Technologies customer support line and hear for yourself : 888-749-8878.

2. When I mentioned I needed technical support, she told me it may be a few minutes on hold while I wait. No problem, I'm a savant when it comes to holding for tech support, I've called Microsoft and actually gotten a person before. What really impressed me about the holding, of all things, was that every minute or two, the woman who originally answered my call actually picked up the line to make sure I was still there and to apologize for the wait. To my knowledge, BW Technologies is the only company on the planet that does this. At this point, as far as I'm concerned, this woman is a saint. Which put me in a much better mood by the time I got tech support.

3. My issue had to deal with the eeprom sensor firmware going bad. Specifically, on startup, you get a Code 11 Sensor Eeprom Error. The only option is to press a button to turn it off with a message that says contact your local vendor. On my first call, I got a guy named Pete (his actual name according to the email is Pedro, in case any of his bosses read this). He looked up the issue in the computer, and the solution was to update the firmware on my Quattro. He walked me through a few attempts, and then we hit the snag point, I had an old IR connector and would need a new one. At this point, Pete said that he wanted to try a few places and look for a workaround and would then get back to me. Later that day, I had an email from Pete explaining what I'd need to do and what equipment I'd need.

4. The next day, I emailed Pete asking when he'd be available to walk me through something I still had a question on. He actually called me back within a half hour, while I was in a meeting, but left me a detailed message as to how I could get hold of him specifically when I called back. Lesson to all the other companies out there: Getting a personal bond between a technical service guy and a customer is a great thing for your business and causes blog posts like this to show up on the internet. I happened to call back while Pete was at lunch, but a guy named Mike was available to help me out. Here's where I assumed it would go bad, and that I'd get a jerk who I'd have to explain the whole problem again to.

5. Wrong. Mike was awesome too, and we spent about half an hour on the phone trying different methods of getting my detector back in running shape. What's the key here? When the first tries failed, MIKE KEPT TRYING. He worked with me, he asked me questions, he was involved and CARED that my gas detector got back up and running without needing it to be sent in. We ended the phone call with his giving me both his and Pete's direct lines in case I had any problems in the future.

Wow. Just wow. I was blown away. After the experiences I had a week ago, I was to the point that I thought all gas detector support departments were full of jerks. When Honeywell first bought BW Technologies, I was worried that they'd can all of the support staff and put in cheap people reading from a book. I couldn't have been more wrong. The BW Technical support staff does a phenomenal job, and I'd really like to commend them for all the help they've given me.

As an aside, if you have a GasAlert Quattro giving you the Code 11 Sensor Eeprom error. Call me, I'll walk you through everything we worked through and how to set it back up. 734-956-0539.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Industrial Scientific Drops the Ball

Who's Ever Had this Experience?

"Now you're throwing too many big words at me, and because I don't understand them I'm going to take them as disrespect. Watch your mouth, and help me with the sale." -Kevin Hart in The 40 Year Old Virgin

How many times have you wanted to say that on the phone with a gas detection company? Customer service reps who don't actually know anything about the product line because they haven't actually ever used the product. Technical support guys who don't actually listen to what your problem is before bulling you over with technical terms they don't really understand in an effort to get you off the phone?

Why can't gas detection companies operate in plain English?

Now, of course this doesn't apply to all companies, and I'm going to single one out in particular for their complete lack of respect for the customer over the phone. Why? Because they're the largest gas detection company on the planet and they should know better. Yes Industrial Scientific, I'm talking about you.

My family has been in the gas business for over 40 years, in a variety of positions including emergency response and class A poison blending, as well as certifications for gas detector repair from all the major manufacturers. So when I call up with a question, I'm not asking how to turn the monitor on in most cases, it means I have a serious problem and I'm looking for some help. Now, some companies I know of (MSA, GfG Instrumentation, RAE Systems to name a few) have great technical support. When they don't have an answer, they go looking for it or forward you on to someone who does. They HELP. However, in my experience, Industrial Scientific technical support people shut you down and move on to the next call. Then you get a nice email explaining how they enjoyed solving your problem and look forward to serving you again.

Sorry guys, no amount of emails make up for the fact that your technical support guy basically told me to shove off.

Last week, I had to order an extra pump for an MX6 unit. So as usual, we called up, got the PN, and then ordered it through a local distributor. On the call, ISC told me they had the parts in stock and ready to ship. A week later, when I call to ask how the order is coming, I'm told that the PN I gave was for a sensor, not a pump, and was then told it in an exasperated tone that it would be 5-7 days, sorry. No suggestions on distributors to call, even though my need was urgent. No apology for giving me the wrong part number. No consoling tone, just a desire to get off the phone and move on to the next call.

This is unacceptable.

As an example of bad technical support, here's my favorite emailed reply from an Industrial Scientific Technical Support Representative regarding how reproducible readings are on their gas monitors with regards to different cylinders of calibration gas with the same value on the label:

-----Original Message-----
From: James Moore

Hey Matt,

Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you here, but I do have a

"If you use it to detect concentrations in another bottle the readings may be off because of the fact the monitor was given set points based off of another bottle of gas thus the reason it is a detector and NOT an analyzer."

Are you saying that the other bottle of gas would be inaccurate in that case or that your monitors/sensors have a low degree reproducibility?

Best regards,

James Moore



Our equipment has ZERO "reproducibility". Our equipment is to be used for detection of gas for personal safety. It is not an analyzer which is what you are trying to use it for.

Our equipment has a tolerance of -+ 5%, that is also why it is a detector and not an analyzer.

The way the MX6 gives you readings is this,

1: You Zero the unit which basically tells the unit there is zero gas present, it doesn't know otherwise because it is a detector not an analyzer.
2: You apply a known concentration of gas, It is not an analyzer, therefore it doesn't know what you are really applying but whatever you tell it, it bases its readings off of that zero point and that told concentration of gas.

If you are using ISC bottles of gas, they come with NIST traceable analysist reports.

All of Industrial Scientifics equipment is for personal safety. It is not meant or designed to be used as an analyzer.

Best Regards,

Technical Support Specialist

Wow. Thanks Matt. I appreciate knowing that your monitors aren't analyzers, and your putting that in the email 5 times really answers my question. He does actually answer my question with the -/+ 5% answer, but he does so while making numerous other errors and just generally being unhelpful. Instead of realizing that we had a misunderstanding about what the word reproducibility means, he launches onto the offensive. Humorously, Matt doesn't realize that GCMS and TCD analyzers have tolerances and are calibrated just like portable gas detectors.

Thanks Matt, for bludgeoning me on that point 5x.

Now I'm not saying Industrial Scientific makes bad instruments or that Industrial Scientific doesn't have brilliant people working for them. I love the ISC MX6 gas detector. I think Dave Wagner over at ISC is a genius for how he presents advice on gas detectors and teaches people in a common sense fashion. I think ISC gives the best calibration and bump test advice in the industry (bump daily, calibrate monthly). But their technical support department needs to check itself, and quickly, because until this changes, I won't be recommending Industrial Scientific to anyone I know, regardless of how great their instruments are.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gas Detection Mythbuster!


So what about cleaning the lamps in your PID gas detector?

First, I asked the question I raised in the last post:  the one where I've used my 5 gas detector (H2S, CO, CH4, LEL, O2, and PID)- is the lamp compromised and how would I user know.  I already know the answer to this, but it was interesting to see how many gas technical support people did not.  They were all well meaning and helpful, but not field experienced.

Here's the first response I received and you wouldn't believe what gas detection company it was from- "Well, if you want to know if it's still good, just run a 100 ppm isobutylene calibration gas standard and if it comes up any where within 30 - 40 ppm of where it's supposed to be, it's still okay."

Really?  Does that mean it can still tell the difference between air freshner and horseshit? 

Here's the right answer: after you've been in a hazardous gas detection event that involves smoke or chemical fog, take the lamp out and clean it.  Don't leave chemical fog or smoke on your lamp.  Then calibrate the unit.  If it doesn't meet the normal specs- get a new lamp.  Don't risk your health.

Mythbuster of the Day:  Only RAE Systems PID lamps can be cleaned by the user.  WRONG.  Ask Bob Henderson of GFG or Joe Glorioso of MSA and they'll tell you straight.  Their lamps can be clearned, too.  That's why their companies sell lamp cleaning kits to their customers.

Don't let the anyone tell you otherwise.  Talk to a gas detector calibration expert. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

PID Detectors, Humidity, and Smoke

To clarify the incident that first led me to the questions I posted in the last blog, a few months back I was called to a building fire that really made me think about PID's.  Here's the layout- a big storage room with a floor sump cover that collected all the fluids from drains in a laboratory.  No solvents were supposed to go down the drain.  Supposed is always a bad word when dealing with flammables.

In the same room for some incomprehensible reason was also a hot water heater.  Although all the chemists claimed they were innocent of pouring solvent down the drain, one fine sunny day the equation of chemical sump reservoir and hot water equaled a flash fire.

And the overhead exhaust fan that was supposed to eliminate any possible buildup?  It burned out a while before and no one knew.  The suspect solvent was hexane, and that closed door storage room really could have used a functioning overhead exhaust system.

Two quick deflagrations (explosions) in the below ground pipe.  Dust clouds shooting up to the ceiling alerted the personnel of a problem.  Then smoke pouring out from the door to the storage room.

Knowing the nature of the business, I brought in a 5 gas monitor.  After the initial response, we started scanning all drain openings looking for either LEL levels or solvents.  Flammable gas detector for the first reading and the PID for elevated VOC concentrations.

Smoke and a foggy haze filled the environment.  PID is short for Photoionization detector- using a lamp in layman terms to measure variations in absorbance from those in pure air.  Not a specific detector unless coupled with a GC, but sure to pick up solvents like hexane.

So how much did the smoke and chemical extinguisher haze limit my readings?

In checking with companies that sell PID's I was told a variety of answers including "...sure there would be some interference but probably not much," to "... tell you the truth, we just don't know."


When I asked for any research data they had on the topic, no one had any that specifically addressed smoke and/or chemical extinguisher interference with a PID detector. 

I don't think they want to tell us.  How about you?

So this week I'm calling the head research guys at Honeywell Analytics (Sperion Biosystems), RAE Systems, GFG, Industrial Scientific, MSA and Ion Science to see what they have to say.  The two smartest and most straight-up guys I've talked in the gas detection business are Jeff Emonds of Honeywell Analytics and Bob Henderson of GFG.

Time to get some industry pressure in play to get some answers.

I'll report back next week on what I find.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Smoke, Fog, and Why Your Measurements Are Off

Here's something to ask the companies that manufacture your hazards detection equipment- what is the effect of smoke or fog on their measurements?

Let me give you an example.

Let's say you're depending on a RAE Systems PID to measure your surroundings for VOC's such as benzenes on a foggy day.  How much does the fog affect your reading if at all?  Humidity and PID readings don't mix well, although Ion Science, Inc. seems to have a PID technology that is less affected by humidity.

Or here's my favorite:  we were involved in putting out a chemical fire some months ago and there was the possibility of hexane exposure. 

Of course, we pulled out the PID, this time one from Industrial Scientific.  But there was smoke in the air.  How much did the smoke affect our readings?

Ever wonder how much of an affect humidity has on long distance (say 300 feet) temperature measurement with an IR gun?  Say you're trying to keep your distance from a rail car that might be suspect.  If the humidity is 90%, will it affect your reading?

Next posting we'll see what the manufacturers say about it, then after that will do a reality check.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

This Gas Dectector Lied to Me

So I Invented Filter Check Gas

If you can't trust your Hazardous Gas Detector, what can you trust?

I zeroed this monitor. I calibrated the CO sensor. Everything working perfectly. According to the monitor.

Then I used it an environment with other gases present and no carbon monoxide whatsoever. Guess what? It gave high carbon monoxide reading.

No CO present, yet it read high CO. According to the manufacturer, it was not sensitive to these other gases. What they didn't say was that the CO sensor was sensitive to these other gases, but that they had a carbon filter in place to absorb them before they got to the sensor.

When that carbon filter is saturated, it doesn't absorb the interferent gases, and they go straight through and give you either falsely high or falsely low readings. Not good. Not good at all.

So how do you know if your sensor's filter is no good?

I invented a family of gas mixtures to do just that. We call it Filter Check Gas. Run it to your monitor or detector and it will tell you instantly if the carbon filter is still working or not. The first Filter Check Gas is for electochemical CO detectors. The rest of the Filter Check Gases for other sensors will be released in the next two months.

They're for sale at Ideal Gases. I use them myself now because I need my CO detector to tell me the truth, and it can't do that if its carbon filter is compromised.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Olfactory Fatigue

Not Everything Smells as Good as a Rose

Most of us in the hazardous materials are familiar with the concept of "olfactory fatigue." In general terms what it means is that by prolonged or concentrated exposure to certain odorous chemicals, we lose the ability to detect them by our sense of smell.

Hydrogen sulfide, for example, can be detected at roughly 1 ppm. However, for concentrations above 100 ppm, most people lose the ability to smell the characteristic "rotten egg" odor. This can also be precipitated by long term exposure to lower concentrations. This phenomena is well documented.

However, there is another form of olfactory fatigue that is not so well known among responders and safety workers.

I can tell you from personal experience that stressful environments can bring on a form of olfactory fatigue relatively quickly. For example, when I have been around situations where an explosion is possible, my ability to smell hydrogen sulfide dropped dramatically.

This is because there are two components to smell- the chemicals interaction with olfactory receptors and the brain's process of this information. When the brain is on overload because of an intensely stressful situation in progress, the olfactory data can be reduced.

Hazardous gas detectors are therefore our first line of defense, but these are not always available to the first person on the scene and, like all equipment, they too can fail.

So before you count too much on your sense of smell, just remember that stress, too, can bring on olfactory fatigue.