IFSJ Exclusive: Gas safety made simple

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IFSJ looks at the EasyAssist Emergency Control Valves from Oxford Gas Products that are helping prevent the spread of fire

Oxford Gas Products was formed with one mission in mind: to make gas safety simple for everyone. It is focused on developing innovative and inclusive safety solutions for the gas industry. The company was created in order to establish a dedicated company that would focus on finding new solutions for the gas and other utility industries.

The company’s first product, the EasyAssist, enables domestic gas Emergency Control Valves (ECVs) to be turned off at the push of a button, and it has the critical safety feature that in the event of a fire it will automatically close the ECV when the temperature in a house reaches 93 degrees Celsius.

When a resident smells gas, they can call the emergency gas helpline, and if safe to do so they will be asked to turn off the gas at the ECV. This is for the safety of the customer, gas engineers and emergency responders. In an emergency, turning off the gas supply can be a critical factor in making a situation safe.

Ofgem identified this as a problem for many vulnerable customers suffering from conditions such as osteoarthritis and strokes who may not have the physical dexterity needed to disconnect the gas. Drilling down into the data highlighted the severity of the problem – in 69% of PSR customer reported gas escapes where the customer was unable to turn the gas off.

Approximately 4.4 million people in the UK have evidence of moderate to severe osteoarthritis in their hands and 1.2 million stroke survivors live in the UK, with 100,000 new survivors added year on year.

New regulations for Multiple Occupancy Buildings (MOBs) following the Grenfell disaster mean that dwellings in MOBs must have a thermal cut-off (TCO) mechanism, and the EasyAssist product provides a solution for that. The EasyAssist can be quickly and simply fitted to the ECV in a matter of minutes by a qualified gas engineer thereby saving companies money when fitting TCO’s in MOBs.

Rollout plans

The Priority Services Register (PSR) is a free and voluntary system that gas distribution networks use to ensure the correct support is given to its most vulnerable customers. It is a system designed and overseen by Ofgem to better ensure that individuals with special requirements have access to additional support from their energy supplier as and when they require it.

Cadent, a partner of Oxford Gas Products, plans to install EasyAssists across its four networks from June 2023. Oxford Gas Products are also talking to the other gas distribution networks such as Scottish Gas, Northern Gas Networks and Wales & West Utilities, about installing EasyAssist on these networks too.

IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey sat down with Robert Pocknell, Commercial Director at Oxford Gas Products to find out more about the company and its EasyAssist solution.

How did you come to set up Oxford Gas Products?

I was a founder in a design company called Oxford Product Design that responded to the call for innovation from the Energy Innovation Centre (EIC). We realised that gas and utilities was an areas which we wanted to target, so we created a new company, Oxford Gas Products in 2021. Its focus is primarily on gas, but it is going to develop more in the utility space generally.

I don’t come from either a fire or a gas background, but I’ve been working on this for the last four years so I’ve built up a modicum of knowledge. That is, I think, also true of Oxford product design – we’re in so many different industries and areas, and it’s just this one has really excited us because innovation goes very slowly in the utilities space. We feel like we are running like hares trying to get everyone moving more quickly, but the industry does go quite slowly. We are very excited to be an innovative company in an industry that takes time to change because we think we can bring faster innovation to the market.

How did the EasyAssist solution come about?

 The EIC is an organisation which was set up looking to try and coordinate more innovation for the energy networks. Cadent, which is an EIC partner and is now our company partner, were looking at how they could create something for the benefit of those on the Priority Services Register (PSR). They issued a call for innovation to our sister company, Oxford Product Design and we responded with this.

The product originally came out looking at vulnerability. They were looking for a solution for elderly and infirm and those with difficulties in turning off the emergency control valve. We pitched and won the call for innovation. The project was funded by Cadent.

Whilst we were designing it, we thought it would be great if it had fire prevention thermal cut-off. The new regulations have come in mandating thermal cut-off, so this is a solution for that. We’re trying to evangelise the fire safety and prevention aspects.

We had a very collaborative approach with EIC and we enjoyed working with them. We also enjoyed working with Cadent who are, as the biggest gas distribution network, really keen to try and find solutions and to make use of the PSR. One of the problems is that the PSR exists but we are not making use of it enough.

What are your plans going forward?

In the future we are planning to coordinate more with the fire service and gas industry – I’m actually meeting with Northern Gas and a fire service in the area next week. There’s quite a lot of discussion going on about how the industry can try and input more data from the fire service, emergency responders and the PSR. There is a lot of data available but nobody is corralling it.

I was at the Utilities show where there was talk about how when the fire service inspect people’s houses, there are opportunities there because the fire services is such a trusted organisation. If the fire service are looking to put in a fire or smoke monitor, or carbon monoxide alarm, solutions such as the EasyAssist should be part of the same process as, for example, knowing where to switch your water off and knowing where to switch your gas off.

Raising awareness of these gas issues is something that we’re quite excited to be involved in, looking at how there can be more coordination and gathering of data to provide a much more holistic service.

There’s obviously privacy concerns around data, but there are some really big projects out there looking to utilise it. Google were quite prominent at the Utilities Show with Google Cloud. They have some ideas utilising big data solutions which could get us in strong position for future innovation. We have thermal cut-off, but in the future you could also have, for example, cut off in the event of different types of gases. There is a lot more innovation to come in this space to create a safer environment.

We originally anticipated that our solution would be rolled out only by the gas distribution networks to domestics. Then the Multiple Occupancy Buildings (MOBs) rules came along which say that Emergency Control Valves (ECV) can be installed in a MOB by qualified gas engineer – you don’t actually need to have it. In a domestic building the gas metre and the ECV is owned by the gas distribution network, so nobody is allowed to touch it apart from turning on and off.

We are excited to have created and brought to market a product that both helps customers with vulnerabilities, and provides a critical fire safety solution to help prevent the spread of fire. The EasyAssist is one of many solutions we are working on to support customers in vulnerable situations and to improve the safety of utility engineers and emergency responders.

This exclusive article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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