“Fire Reactants”: Filling A Fire Protection Gap

March 1, 2004
For decades, fire prevention efforts have focused primarily on three areas: detection, suppression and public fire education. However, despite advances in detection and suppression technology, there remains a gap in the overall scope of fire protection.
Photo courtesy of No-Burn Inc. The small model house on the left is treated with No-Burn Plus paint, the one in the middle is untreated and the one on the right is treated with No-Burn Wood Gard. Fires were set in the houses using crumpled newspaper as the fuel source. They were all lit within seconds of each other and allowed to burn with no additional intervention. See page 82 for details.

While fire detection and suppression systems are effective in their ability to detect and suppress a fire, they have one flaw– they are reactive systems. This means that they cannot prevent a fire from starting and by the time they react to the fire, the building has already sustained some degree of fire damage. “Historically, fire science has responded through modifications of existing automatic sprinkler technology, isolation and segregation of exposures to limit loss potential, and improved detection capability of protective signaling systems,” said Gregory Kraemer, president of Insurance Loss Control Consultants Inc. “Unfortunately, these efforts are reactionary and fail to address the rudimentary issues of prevention.”

Over the past few years, some interesting statistics have surfaced about these reactionary systems. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) states that there are now more smoke detectors in homes that do not work than there are those that do work. Recent studies also show that smoke detectors are not as effective in waking occupants – especially children – as once thought. Insurance industry statistics point to the fact that many times, collateral damage from human and mechanical suppression activities often exceeds the cost of the fire damage itself.

While both detection and suppression of a fire are reactionary measures, public fire education is a proactive step. However, many studies show that the average citizen is scared of fire and panics when confronted with a fire situation. Even those individuals with some formal training have admitted to “freezing” when faced with a fire situation. While fire detection, fire suppression and public fire education have come together to form an impressive record over the years, a gap still remains.

Photo courtesy of No-Burn Inc. After burning for about five minutes, the crumpled newspaper in the two treated houses was consumed by the fire, but the No-Burn would not allow the fires to consume those houses as fuel. The house that was not treated continued to burn.

Forty years ago, many thought the introduction of fire retardants would change the fire protection industry. While the concept was good in theory, the products at that time were a different story. While those fire retardants were effective, they were in many cases highly toxic and would off-gas before, during and after a fire. Many used formaldehyde or other chemicals that released deadly gases in a fire, posing even more of a hazard to the occupants. They decomposed wood, so their use in residential structures was quickly abandoned.

Even recently, the State of California banned two forms of a fire retardant containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are found in TVs, computers, cars and furniture. These neurotoxic chemicals have been shown to affect pregnant women and their fetuses, leading to learning disorders, behavioral changes and memory loss, among other disorders. While PBDEs have been in use for many years, it is only now that their negative effects are being understood.

New Technology: Fire Reactants

Recognizing the negative effects of these past situations, modern technology has completely rewritten the book on fire retardants. Since the late 1990s, a new breed of non-toxic, non-carcinogenic and environmentally safe fire retardants have entered the market. This newer technology uses safe, non-toxic, food-grade materials in their makeup. While these products are generally classified as fire retardants, they are actually called “fire reactants.” What is the difference? Fire retardants in their finished form for the particular application in which they are used do not change. For instance, once a fire-retardant paint is applied, it will always remain the same, even in a fire. While it burns much slower than a regular paint and may offer some additional protection, its basic form and chemical composition do not change.

Fire reactants on the other hand do change. When a fire reactant is applied to an object, it is “dormant” until heat and/or fire is introduced. At that instant, the reactant goes through a rapid chemical transformation wherein the physical characteristics change completely. This change creates a new compound that in turn shields whatever it is applied to and keeps it from supporting the combustion process. Therefore, a fire reactant removes two key components of the fire tetrahedron – fuel and the chemical chain reaction.

“Fire behaviorists, insurance underwriters and loss-control specialists have focused renewed attention on the use of fire retardants as a viable method to stimulate and encourage a proactive environment based on preventative principles,” Kraemer said.

One company that is involved in the development of fire-reactant technology is No-Burn Inc., an Ohio-based company. William Kish, president of No-Burn, explains how his products work: “When a porous item is treated with a No-Burn product, it becomes highly resistive to fire. Whether wood, drywall, fabric, paper or any number of items are treated with No-Burn, these ordinary items that normally contribute to the spread of a fire become incapable of burning. When No-Burn is exposed to heat, the product transforms into a carbon-based material. Because this material does not burn, whatever it is protecting will not burn or support the combustion process.” No-Burn manufactures six fire reactants for use in residential and commercial structures.

Putting It To The Test

Tests show that fire reactants work very well. For instance, when applied to a sheet of paper and allowed to dry, a cigarette lighter held in direct contact with the paper for 20 seconds could not ignite the paper. While charring occurred in the immediate area of flame contact, the paper would not ignite or support further flame spread.

Photo courtesy of No-Burn Inc. The No-Burn Plus house. Notice in the bottom of the house that the paper pile is in place. Around the edges of the top plate is the intumescent (bubbling) of the paint that creates the char-barrier between the structural components and the fire. There was no structural damage to this house.

In another test involving wood, Kish demonstrated how a fire reactant can protect a small piece of wood, such as a tongue depressor. Dipping half of the stick in the No-Burn Wood Gard solution and letting it dry, a lighter was held to the untreated side for 15 seconds and the stick continued to burn. Holding the lighter to treated side only produced the carbon charring with no after flame.

“When we treat the framing of a new home,” Kish said, “we treat every exposed surface of raw wood. This means that electrical shorts in the wall or a direct lightning strike will not be able to effectively use the wooden structural components as a viable fuel source.” From the viewpoint of firefighters, that means that the possibility of structural collapse or having the individual components of wooden trusses fail are far less likely, especially in the early stages of a fire.

While in many cases fire reactants may be able to prevent a fire from starting, Kish pointed out that fire reactants are not fireproof. “Anything will burn given enough time and temperature,” he said. So what is the main purpose of fire reactants? To create additional time during a fire situation by stopping or drastically slowing down fire spread.

“Fire reactants are the best first-line defense against fire, especially in the home, where most fire deaths occur,” Kish contended. “The average American home is a death trap waiting to happen. With the use of synthetic products in just about every type of home furnishing and the increased use of polyurethane foams in furniture, fires that once took four minutes to fully involve a room are now taking less than two. Rooms are literally exploding into flames.”

To prove the point, Kish used two models of a room corner that were built using conventional construction methods. Placed in each model was an average-size recliner chair with a polyester-blended fabric cover and polyurethane foam cushions. A few sheets of newspaper were placed in each chair. Each model also had a curtain hung on the wall. The walls of both models were painted using No-Burn Plus intumescent (bubbling) paint. One chair and curtain were treated using No-Burn Fabric Fire Gard and the other chair and curtain were not treated. Kish noted that in most home fires started by a cigarette or child playing with matches, the fast- spreading fire will quickly leave its point of origin because of the speed at which most home furnishings burn.

Photo courtesy of No-Burn Inc. The untreated house. This structure was allowed to burn for six minutes before the fire was put out with a water can. Notice the deep charring of the top plate, the walls are all burned through, the paper is completely consumed in the bottom of the house and the overall damage is extensive.

Within 20 seconds of igniting both models, there was a definite difference between the two. The untreated chair immediately started to burn, melting the fabric cover off the cushion and seat back and exposing the polyurethane foam underneath. The polyurethane foam started to burn vigorously, quickly spreading the fire beyond its point of origin. In the No-Burn-treated chair, however, all that burned were the newspapers.

“Notice the smoke production between the two models,” Kish said. “When No-Burn reacts to a fire and goes through the chemical chain reaction to form the protective barrier, because it does not allow the fire to use the treated material as fuel to burn, it can eliminate up to 80% of the smoke production of a regular fire.”

The unprotected chair was completely consumed in less than four minutes. The walls were charred over as the intumescent paint foamed up and remained intact on the wall. The No-Burn-treated chair and curtain sustained some charring from the fire, but the fire never left the point of origin. The front, back and sides of the chair did not sustain any fire damage. On the wall, the intumescent paint only charred a 15-by-15-inch area.

In another test, Kish placed three two-by-two-foot model houses next to each other. One house was left untreated, one was treated with No-Burn Wood Gard and one was painted using No-Burn Plus. Fires were lit in the two treated houses first. The untreated house was lit last to show how fast a fire doubles in size within an untreated structure. Within four minutes, the fires in the treated structures completely consumed the newspapers and went out.

Photo courtesy of No-Burn Inc. The No-Burn Wood Gard house. An intumescent char barrier is visible in the areas where the fire was in direct contact with the structure. The remainder of the newspapers can be seen in the bottom, but there was no structural damage to the house.

“This is a perfect example of how fire reactants do not allow a fire to use the structure as a fuel source,” Kish said. The untreated structure continued to burn. At five minutes, the fire extended through the roof structure and the sides of the exterior sheathing and the test was stopped. “Even with a four- to five-minute response time, you can see how much damage an untreated structure can sustain and that is only after the fire is detected,” Kish said.

Who Is Taking Note?

With fire reactant technology being able to minimize the damage from fire, the insurance industry is taking note. On Sept. 18, 2003, officials from No-Burn conducted live-burn exercises in Springfield, MO, along with representatives from the insurance industry. The Brookline Fire Department hosted the event and was on hand for the tests. Three 10-by-12-foot houses were constructed and fully furnished. Two of the houses were left untreated and one was treated throughout with No-Burn. Fires were set in each house and allowed to burn without intervention from the fire department. The two untreated houses burned to the ground in about 50 minutes.

The house treated with No-Burn took over seven hours to burn and the live-burn instructors had to use an accelerant and combustible materials to get the structure to sustain any measurable amount of fire damage. The insurance industry representatives stated that with such protection, most fire claims could easily be reduced by 30% to 50% because the fire did not damage any of the structural components in the home, even when an accelerant was used. Kraemer agreed, saying, “The use of such products will soon change the way that the insurance industry will charge consumers for insuring their property.”

State and local governments that recently passed tougher fire codes are starting to see the use of this technology as a means to fill the gap that exists in the fire-protection field. State and local fire marshals are conducting more and more widespread tests of products such as No-Burn. In many cases, state and local governments are using the technology themselves. For example, in late November, the State of Rhode Island mandated that the Christmas tree displayed in the State Capitol Building be treated with a non-toxic fire reactant from No-Burn.

The Perfect System?

Is there a perfect fire-protection system? “Sprinkler systems are an excellent means of fire suppression, but it is very impractical to think that the millions of homes in existence today will all be retrofitted with them, nor can the families that own these homes afford to have them installed,” Kish said. “At a fraction of the cost of a sprinkler system, you can have proactive protection that can literally stop a fire before it starts. While there is no doubt about the effectiveness of sprinkler systems, this technology certainly adds a another dimension to the fire-protection industry.”

Photo courtesy of No-Burn Inc. A view of the roof structure from each of the houses shows that the one in the middle, the untreated house, sustained the most extensive damage, while the two on either end that were treated were not damaged and were protected from the fire by the char-barrier.

He continued, “Our goal is to increase the time that a family has to either put a small fire out effectively and without immediate danger to themselves or to get out of the house and call the fire department. If the fire department is called, firefighters have a safer environment in which to operate, less smoke, less heat, a much smaller fire to put out, and their suppression and overhaul activities will mean less collateral damage to the structure. When the insurance claim is filed, the insurance company is obviously looking at a lower cost per claim. It is a win-win situation for everyone.”

Kish is quick to point out that this new technology works right along with existing technology.

“We certainly are not seeking to replace the proven systems that are in place today,” he said. “Sprinklers, for example, do what they are designed to do very well. If you had a building with a sprinkler system and it was treated with No-Burn, then I cannot think of a safer structure to be in. This technology certainly fills the gap and is a perfect addition to current fire detection and suppression measures or as a stand-alone preventative measure.”

For more information on No-Burn, call 800-989-8577 or visit www.noburn.com.

Jason P. Speller is a North Carolina Certified Firefighter III, Emergency Technical Rescue Technician and a North Carolina EMT-Intermediate. He has worked as a career firefighter in North Carolina and as a fire inspector and arson investigator in Virginia. Speller is the president of Fire Safety Technologies LLC, a North Carolina-based company that researches, develops and markets fire safety products. He also works as a consultant for the fire-retardant/reactant industry.

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