Fire is a building’s worst enemy, and time is a critical element. Each minute a fire’s progress can be slowed provides more time for occupants to get out of harm’s way and for firefighters to reach and extinguish a blaze. In this way, “firestop” material might be better labeled “fire pause” material.
Several manufacturers recently introduced products that can make installing these vital fire barriers easier, and suppliers are seeking ways to help facilities track firestopped penetrations and joints, especially in demanding healthcare settings.
Like water, fire follows opportunity. It seeks oxygen and fuel sources to continue burning. To slow it down, building codes require drywall, doors, floors and other barrier-forming building products to provide protection rated for a designated number of hours. When these barriers are penetrated to install plumbing or electrical wiring, that rating no longer applies. Firestop materials—including a range of caulks, putties, sprays and mats—exist to return that barrier to the required fire rating.
Whose job is it?
While firestopping has been a part of building codes for decades, it has become a more critical issue in recent years as facilities have taken on more frequent technology upgrades. Anytime new wire or cable is pulled through wall or floor penetrations, existing firestop material may need to be removed and replaced, which could leave a building and its occupants vulnerable if those products are incorrectly specified or installed. In addition, as building systems have become more complicated and building trades more specialized, it is not always clear who is responsible for ensuring firestop protection is correctly installed.
“Typically, the general specification of all applications that need to be firestopped is under the responsibility of the architectural firm,” said Chris Kusel, a business unit marketing manager with Hilti. However, he added, some specification work could be subcontracted to other firms for the design of work done by their trades. For example, low-voltage cable installation could go to either a data designer or electrical contractor, and those specialties may opt to subcontract firestopping to another professional who specializes in this work.
“In general, no trade really likes to do firestopping, especially the electricians and data contractors,” said George Yoshida, a business development manager with 3M. “They were trained to pull cable. None of them were trained to do firestopping. As a result, they have chosen to sub this work out. However, when there isn’t enough work, electricians like to claim it.”
And this isn’t a bad idea, according to Yoshida, who said these assignments offer ECs a “real revenue opportunity.” Unfortunately, he said, firestopping is often left to apprentices.
“When they do that, oftentimes the work isn’t done appropriately,” he said.
Kusel sees building owners and general contractors becoming more aware of the pitfalls that can result from poor firestopping installations. More contract documents require installers to have specific training directly from the product manufacturer, especially in data-system settings, which might be much less permanent than electrical wiring installations.
“Over the lifecycle [of a building], a particular data opening might be upgraded numerous times,” he said, adding that, during each of these upgrades, “you have the opportunity for the firestop to be installed improperly or not be installed at all, which jeopardizes the safety of the building over its entire lifecycle.”
Among the most common installation mistakes Yoshida has seen are either installing the wrong UL-rated system for the setting or installing the right system but doing it incorrectly. Among the more common traditional methods for firestopping has been to combine intumescent putties or sealants with mineral wool as a kind of binder.
“It’s messy, and it takes too much time,” Yoshida said, adding that this option can be especially problematic in electrical installations. “The electrical and low-voltage contractors have the most complicated applications, [and] the
firestop manufacturers really haven’t done a good job of providing simple, easy-to-use solutions.”
A range of options
Manufacturers 3M, Hilti and Wiremold have products intended to address this situation. 3M’s Fire Barrier Rated Foam FIP 1-Step is packaged in a tube and applied using a caulking gun. Like epoxy, the foam is created by two ingredients that combine when squeezed together and expand up to five times to fill a void. It then expands more in a fire to create a barrier that’s been tested up to two hours in accordance with ASTM E 814/UL 1479 requirements. These are the two critical testing criteria for firestop material.
Other manufacturers are focusing on products that could make future wiring renovations less problematic. For example, Hilti’s Firestop Speed Sleeve is a cylindrical firestop device that can be repenetrated with data cables without sealants or putties in openings 4 inches in diameter or less.
“No matter what contractors come through over the life of the building, they have a firestopped opening,” Kusel said.
For larger openings, Hilti’s Firestop Block provides a shape-to-fit solution. The product looks like a polyurethane brick, and it can be cut to fit around cable tray and conduit.
Kusal said a large opening with 12 inches of annular space typically can’t be solved with a sealant, but he noted the block’s usefulness in such settings.
“As long as you have the right depth, it can be shaped around awkward opportunities without having to use any glue or adhesives,” he said.
Additionally, some electrical products manufacturers have developed wire and cable fittings with firestopping capabilities built into their existing devices. Wiremold, for example, developed the FlameStopper Thru-Wall and Thru-Floor fittings to work with the company’s existing cable tray systems. The wall- or floor-mounted fittings are shipped in pairs with a connecting piece of EMT conduit, and they incorporate steel doors that can be adjusted to fit snugly around wires and cables. A block of intumescent material within each assembly expands under the right heat conditions and creates a hard char that stops flames from penetrating that assembly.
“It’s a sheet-metal housing, and inside, it has intumescent material,” said Michael Cole, Wiremold product manager. “It expands and closes off the opening, and it will compress the cable into a really tight bundle.”
Healthcare’s safety emphasis
While firestopping is a requirement in all building types, it is especially important in hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare settings where occupants may have limited ability to evacuate the facility. The Joint Commission, which has accreditation authority over hospitals and other healthcare operations, has established specific standards for firestopping in the facilities it oversees. Regular physical inspections are a part of the organization’s accreditation efforts, and firestop installation is an important element in these visits.
Hospital facility managers are expected to maintain up-to-date records of every firestopped penetration, including when—and by whom—any such openings have been reopened and resealed. The combination of this documentation, along with written policies and procedures related to firestopped penetrations, is called a barrier management program (BMP). BMPs are becoming increasingly sophisticated, thanks to the Joint Commission’s safety emphasis.
Hilti, 3M and other firestop manufacturers have recognized both facility needs and business opportunities in the healthcare market, and they have developed software offerings to help managers of these facilities keep up with documentation requirements. For example, scannable barcodes may be used to mark all penetrations. To create an easily tracked chain of responsibility, ECs may be required to scan those codes and update information in related databases whenever new wires are run through those openings.
“It’s very important to have a program in place to manage penetrations.Upgrading is very frequent in these settings,” Kusel said. “There may be two or three contractors in at the same time, so consistency of management is especially important.”
And both Kusel and Yoshida see some interest in BMPs spreading from hospitals and nursing homes to university campuses. Additionally, Kusel said he is seeing general contractors express some interest in such data tracking. He said they want to better understand what openings in a project are being firestopped. Information about penetrations also is making its way into initial design documents. Many manufacturers now add firestop offerings into their building information modeling (BIM) libraries.
“Hilti has BIM objects that can be used by architects, general contractors, and the trades,” Kusel said. “That trend should increase over the next few years.”