Protecting Critical Connections in Harsh Environments

Protecting Critical Connections in Harsh Environments

By Dominic Ross, Technical Manager UK & Ireland at Siemon

In the data centre, the focus has long been on cabling solutions that support ultra-high densities and faster data transmission, whilst in the LAN and intelligent buildings, it is all about network convergence and deploying a unified cabling system that supports multiple building systems and devices. A closer look at the industrial market reveals a strong focus on single-pair Ethernet to support the IIoT. But what about the environments that fall in between? 

The growth in digital information and adoption of Ethernet networks and IP-based devices means that connections to networks exist in more places than ever before. Consequently, enterprise businesses are required to expand their networks into environments that in the past would have gone without network connections and wireless service. These places often fall in between what is typically classified as ‘commercial office’ and ‘industrial’ environment – not quite severe enough to be considered fully ‘industrial’, but in need of something more rugged than what exists in everyday commercial offices. This is because cables and connectivity in these ‘harsher’ environments’ may be subject to increased levels of vibration and shock, ingress of particulates and liquids, temperature extremes and humidity, chemical pollutants as well as electromagnetic interference (EMI).

Harsher environments are everywhere

Universities, primary/secondary education schools, and medical laboratories for example require protection against chemicals, gases, and other contaminants, as well as vibration protection for some equipment. Hospitals and healthcare facilities are susceptible to EMI from medical equipment and typically require shielded cabling and connectivity.

Restaurants, commercial kitchens, and cafeterias need network components that are protected from cooking heat, dust and liquids ingress, oils, and cleaning solvents. Resorts, stadiums, theme parks are subject to sunlight, temperature extremes, humidity, dust, and rainwater. 

Consequently, there is an increased risk of cables and connectivity getting damaged and network performance inhibited. Temperature extremes for example can soften and break down plastics used in connector housings and cable jacketing materials. Liquids, moisture or chemicals infiltrating network connections can cause the corrosion of plug and outlet contacts. Dust infiltrating network connections can create poor contact, overheating or arcing that damages plug and jack contacts.

With network connections appearing more frequently in these harsher environments today, what must network managers, designers and installers look out for in cables and connectivity to maintain long-term network reliability?

When installing networks in these environments, specific industry standards and industry-based ratings can provide guidance.

MICE protection

ISO/IEC and TIA and industry standards for industrial premises incorporate the MICE method for classifying environments in which networks reside. MICE stands for Mechanical, Ingress, Climatic, and Electromagnetic and includes three levels of severity: Level 1 for commercial/ office, Level 2 for light industrial and Level 3 for industrial. It’s important to note that rarely is an environment exclusive to one MICE classification. For example, an environment exposed to liquid-only may be classified as M1I3C1E1. When planning cabling systems, it is recommended to consider the worst-case scenario and applicable level parameters, regardless of the other parameters in scope.

Ingress Protection (IP)

Another standards-based rating to consider for harsh environments is the ingress protection (IP) ratings developed by the European Committee for Electro Technical Standardization (CENELEC). The first digit following the letters IP classifies protection against solids (i.e., dust) and the second digit classifies protection against liquids (i.e., water). An IP rating of IP22 for example would indicate protection against finger-size objects and vertically dripping water. A common IP rating for network components in wet environments is IP67, which indicates total protection against dust and liquid ingress.

Cable and connectivity for harsher environments

When it comes to selecting ruggedised cable and connectivity for harsher environments it is important to look out for specific components and characteristics to ensure maximum protection, including:

  • Chemical-resistant thermoplastic housing on connectivity — Plugs and outlets should use materials that provide the widest range of protection from most solvents and common industrial chemicals.
  • Dust caps for outlets — Ruggedised dust caps can protect unused outlets and seal outlets during wash downs.
  • IP67-rated copper and fibre connectivity — Ruggedised outlets and modular patch cords with an IP66/IP67-rated seal protect plugs and outlet contacts from dust and moisture.
  • More durable cable jacket materials — Jacket materials such as polyurethane and thermoplastic elastomers can provide better tensile strength and lower temperature flexibility and brittle points, as well as better tear, abrasion, chemical and moisture resistance.
  • IP44-rated faceplates — Stainless steel faceplates with rear sealing gaskets provide a protective seal from moisture and debris.

Shielded cabling for EMI protection and Power over Ethernet applications

When supporting the latest applications in challenging environments, support for remote powering technology is critical as many IP-based devices are powered via PoE over the same twisted-pair copper cabling that connects them to the network. Advanced outdoor thermal and night vision surveillance cameras, high-throughput Wi-Fi 6/6E wireless access points, and high-efficiency LED lighting – all of which reside in unforgiving environments – are now supported by higher levels of remote power.

Considering industry standards and the impact of higher-level PoE for powering capable security devices, Category 6A/Class EA shielded cabling systems should be the minimum twisted-pair cabling system deployed for copper-based applications. Furthermore, shielded construction offers the best protection for copper cabling against EMI/RFI.

Consider both worlds

Both copper and fibre solutions may need to be considered, especially as more fibre is extending out of the commercial data centre and telecommunications room environment to bring higher bandwidth closer to the work area outlet or to deal with longer distance requirements. 

Another consideration is a breadth of copper and fibre types in a variety of performance levels. Selecting a manufacturer with ruggedised copper and fibre cable connectivity available in the same copper and fibre performance as the rest of the LAN will prevent connections in more demanding environments from having to compromise on bandwidth and performance.

Partnering for success

Experience goes a long way in designing for these environments. Whilst designers that are familiar with deploying networks in industrial and harsh environments will likely know how to use MICE parameters and which product features to consider, designers and installers working in commercial environments may not.

Commercial designers with limited experience in planning for cable and connectivity that extends into harsh environments would be wise to work closely with cable and connectivity manufacturers who understand the standards and specifications, offer the latest copper and fibre ruggedised components and have experience in determining the type of cable and connectivity required based on a variety of environmental factors.

The demand for networks that can withstand more severe conditions is growing and ruggedised cable and connectivity solutions are available in the market for sufficient protection. However, knowledge of the industry standards is important and so is the selection of the right types of ruggedised components in order to maintain long-term network reliability.

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