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Go large with fire-safety testing

09 October 2018

WITH ALL the focus, in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, on combustible cladding the key point to bear in mind is that product testing will not ensure system safety unless the testing is large-scale and full-system.

This was the clear message conveyed to delegates by Tony Ryan in the Fire and Evaucation Theatre this morning at Fire Safety North in Manchester’s Eventcity. Tony is technical director for the UK and Ireland at Kingspan, which, he says, has carried out more than 1800 tests globally on panels and façade systems, giving the company a broad understanding of the various tests and which are the most robust.

Given the attention being paid to aluminium composite material (ACM) panels currently, Tony reminded delegates of the difference between them and insulated sandwich panels, as outlined in EN14509. Pointing out that Kingspan doesn’t manufacture ACM panels, he showed a video of a full-scale BS8414 test on fire-retardant ACM panels and polyurethane ACM panels, which, he pointed out, highlights the “stark difference” between the peformance of each.

Said Tony: “In our opinion, whatever is behind polyurethane ACM will contribute to fire spread, as found by Prof. Luke Bisby in his expert report as part of the Grenfell inquiry.” He went on to discuss, and illustrate, the limitations of small-scale tests under EN13501-1 in relation to the fire classification of construction products and building elements. Singling out the gross calorific potential test, in particular, he expressed his surprise that it is “so much relied upon to determine safety”.

He went on: “Classifying something as A1 or A2 without large-scale testing does not ensure safety. Among other things, small-scale testing ignores the chimney effect (fire spread through cavities).”

Kingspan tests under BR135 to BS8414 using a 9m test rig that resembles two floors above the combustion chamber. It incorporates system-specific details, such as cavity barriers and fire-stopping. Flame exposure is 30 minutes and the fire releases approximately 3mW of heat at its peak.

Tony also discussed the LPCB LPS 1181-1 and 1181-2 tests, which, although robust, are not, in his opinion, suitable for high-rise buildings. He said: “These tests are insurance-led and so focus on mitigating property loss, while tests under the Building Regulations focus on mitigating loss of life.”

He went on to show videos and photos from three real-life fire case studies to illustrate his arguments.* In all three – a retail distribution centre in London, a hospital in Leeds and a car dealership in Belgium – the fires started outside and adjacent to the buildings, which were clad in LPCB/FM-approved panels. In all three, fire spread was limited and fire damage was localised to the source of the fire.

Tony then informed delegates that Kingspan is currently building a new test facility in Holywell, which, when completed, will be able to host a whole range of tests, including those to BS, EN and ISO standards, as well as LCPB tests. And, to provide even further assurance, the company is now offering training to detailers and installers, with the ultimate aim of being able to provide building owners with a compliance-assured certificate, as well as a warranty.

In conclusion, Tony reminded delegates that “the proposal to ban combustible materials (in England) will not guarantee safer buildings”. He continued: “Large-scale system testing is always recommended, where available and relevant, and third-party certification schemes based on large-scale testing provide certainty of performance.

“Kingspan is committed to working with all stakeholders to improve fire safety by making a positive contribution through technical evidence.”

*Note that all Kingspan has a wealth of case-study information available on the likes of hospitals, schools, retail outlets and food premises. All cases have been independently assessed by a third party and the information is available by contacting Kingspan.