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Increasing Fire Safety in Plastic Materials Construction

Increasing Fire Safety in Plastic Materials Construction

The use of plastic materials in building construction is widespread today, and we are seeing the continuous development of new products and application areas. Yet there is skepticism among people working in the field of construction or fire protection about the extended use of plastics. The skepticism may be partly caused by fire incidents involving plastic materials, but also by a lack of knowledge or available information about such products. There are numerous severe examples of plastic building materials that have been mounted or used incorrectly with regard to their documented fire properties. SINTEF NBL aims to contribute to increased fire safety in the application of plastic materials in construction.

Project: ”Plastic building materials and fire safety”

SINTEF NBL is working on a project which focuses on plastic building materials and fire safety. The project is financed by the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (DSB) and the Norwegian Building Authority (DiBK). The work will proceed throughout 2013, and is continued from a pilot  prestudy that was conducted in 2012.

The pilot prestudy report describes how fire safety issues of plastic building materials are covered in Norwegian building regulations (TEK 10) with guidelines, and the development of the building regulations and research activities related to plastic materials and fire safety in the Nordic countries. The report also provides an overview of relevant plastic materials and their reaction-to-fire properties. Furthermore, we interviewed insurance companies, fire brigades, fire investigators from the police, constructors, and suppliers of plastic building materials about their experiences and opinions on the topic. Link to the report (in Norwegian): http://nbl.sintef.no/publication/lists/docs/NBL_A12138.pdf

Conclusions from the prestudypilot study

The opinions and levels of knowledge related to the fire safety of plastic building materials varied among the interviewees. If the understanding of the European system for documentation of the fire properties of building materials, and the requirements for such documentation, are inadequate, it may lead to construction projects suffering from lacking or erroneous documentation. Furthermore, a lack of knowledge may be one reason for the skepticism towards plastic building products. Plastics are often mentioned in general terms, but the same type of plastic material may be used in products with very different fire properties, dependent on e.g. density and additives. We can therefore not make draw conclusions about the fire safety of plastic building materials on a general basis.

According to the current Norwegian building regulations, it is the fire properties of a product, rather than the type of material, that regulate how and where the products may be applied. However, the clear distinction between combustible and non-combustible insulation may impede the application of plastic insulation materials, e.g. materials used to insulate ceilings and facades.

Main focus in future work

In some fire incidents involving sandwich elements with combustible core materials, the fire has been observed to spread in cavities behind the cladding of the elements.  However, in such cases, the cladding may have been damaged, or the core material may have been exposed because of ongoing construction work. SINTEF NBL will study if damaged cladding has a significant effect on the fire properties of sandwich elements with combustible core material.

We will also focus on agricultural buildings, including greenhouses and buildings used to house livestock. In Norway, electricity is a frequent cause of agricultural fires. Because of the increased use of plastic materials in agriculture, we will study how plastic building products are used in agricultural buildings, and whether the applications are according to the building regulations.

Furthermore, we believe that the knowledge about fire safe applications of plastic building materials should be increased among the different actors in the construction industry.

By Nina Reitan, Research Scientist at SINTEF NBL

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