Fire Stopper

Intumescent paint is nothing new, yet it is amazing. Expanding as it heats up, the substance creates a char layer that insulates a variety of underlying substrates. A properly coated surface swells up to an inch-thick foam layer when exposed to temperatures around 300°F. This foam shield protects the surface underneath the paint from heating up and igniting. Consequently, intumescent paint also suppresses smoke. This fireproof layer slows an inferno and could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency; the delay in the spread of the fire helps increase escape time and decrease fire damage.

Traditionally, intumescent paints have been difficult to work with and inefficient to apply… until now. Recent advances with intumescent paint’s ease-of-use, versatility, and affordability have created new products to choose from, including offerings from Contego International, FlameStop Inc., and PPG. One of these new brands, named Pyroblok, is a result of a partnership between Bradford Industries and the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) Lowell.

UMASS Lowell was particularly interested in the project for a variety of reasons.“Our campus is quite old and we have many timber buildings dating from the 1800s,” said Rich Lemoine, director of fire safety & health.“If we had a fire the probability of significant damage remains high.” Lemoine is also quick to point out that many of these buildings house a variety of labs, both wet and dry, with a variety of chemicals inside. The school also has residence halls that hold more than 2,800 students. “Protecting life and assets is a priority,” he continued. “This product could add precious minutes before a room is engulfed in flames.”

Even younger buildings could benefit from a coat or two of intumescent paint. “Today’s dorms hold an incredible fuel load,” explained Eric Ciccone, manufacturer’s representative, Pyroblok. “Electronics, foam pillows, plastics, comforters, and all the stuff that today’s students bring to their rooms would overwhelm a sprinkler system installed in the 1970s.”

School Fire Statistics

School fires are a danger for sure, but how common are they? Quite common, as it turns out. The American Society of Safety Engineers sites that, “between 2002 and 2005 U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 3,300 structure fires in dormitories, fraternities, sororities, and barracks.” These events prove costly in many ways, with an annual average of “seven civilian deaths, 46 civilian fire injuries, and $25M in direct property damage.” Surprisingly, the National Fire Protection Association reports that the main cause of these fires is arson. “Students think they are pranksters when they start a fire, but in actuality they are arsonists,” said Ciccone.

With fire an unpleasant inevitability on campus, an intumescent paint starts to look better. These paints, often sold for specific uses (such as areas that must withstand a lot of scrubbing), come in a tintable form or are available in a range of colors. Paints are rated on how well they protect in fires; the lower the “flamespread rating,” the better the intumescent paint will protect your building. “Class A” materials have a rating from 0-25. Intumescent paint is also U.L.-tested based not only on flamespread, but also smoke generated and fuel contributed. This rating can be found on the paint’s label or obtained from the paint’s manufacturer.

Applications

Two to three coats of the product create a 10-mm.-thick barrier that never breaks down, so the treated area never loses protection. “You can paint over it as much as you want and the fire blocking properties are always there,” said Lemoine. Dorm rooms and labs with toxic chemicals represent logical areas to receive intumescent paint. “We identified multiple settings like high-hazard spaces and timbered buildings to be treated,” said Lemoine. “These buildings are getting the product everywhere — common rooms, corridors, and lobbies — to guarantee a safe passage out.” Ciccone agrees with the usage. “Painting hallways and stairways makes sense,” he said. “Anywhere along the path of egress is a good candidate for the product.”

Along with being effective and easy to use, some intumescent paints are also green. Brands such as Pyroblok and Firefree 88 from International Fire Resistant Systems, Inc. have low levels of VOCs. Many intumescent paints are nontoxic after drying and when exposed to flame, and some paints are also mold- and bacteria-resistant.

While UMASS Lowell worked intumescent paint into their budget, not all brands are inexpensive. “Paint prices are all over the map,” said Ciccone. “Pyroblok comes in at $70 a gallon, which is definitely the high end of the spectrum.” Lemoine has no problem justifying the cost. “Firstly, you can probably get a reduction on your insurance because you’ve added another level of safety,” he said. “But even if we don’t, shame on us if we can provide extra safety to our residents and we choose not to strictly on price.”

Because that’s one area where no one wants to get burned.

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