Flameout

Bill McHugh

December 1, 2002

All the activities of autumn-falling leaves, college and high school football games, Thanksgiving-have passed, and another season-winter-is arriving. With it comes colder weather, Christmas (and Christmas shopping) and the imminent arrival of a new year. Ah, the circle of life continues with great momentum.

So, what does any of this have to do with firestopping? Well, the circle of life for firestopping continues to move forward, affecting life safety in a positive way. In the two years since my last article for Insulation Outlook, many programs have been successfully introduced and are beginning to take hold in the industry. We’ll discuss discuss some of the new developments in testing in these contractor programs and learn how they can help improve life safety while providing innovation to the firestop contracting industry.

Firestop systems have been qualified for use by testing protocol such as ASTM E 814 and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) 1479. Various "hybrids" of the basic firestop qualification test have evolved to meet demands of different and possibly higher movement conditions, in a perimeter wall, such as floor slab gaps, top-of-wall joints and expansion joints. Every test method, however, has one thing in common. They can be tested under UL 1479, and soon, ASTM E 814, at the manufacturers choice, to incorporate an "L" Rating.

L Ratings

What are "L" ratings? They are the ratings that describe "air movement" through firestops, at ambient temperature and at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (F). The test protocol measures the amount of air traveling through a firestop system in cubic feet per minute, per square foot of opening area. The "L" rating is used to establish suitability for use of firestop products in smoke assemblies. UL started testing for smoke in the early 1990s, and, along with the "F" and "T" ratings, began publishing "L" ratings in the UL Fire Resistance Directory.

"L" ratings can be an important part of the total life safety package, when firestopping is used in a fire resistance rated assembly that has both fire and smoke requirements. Model codes have various requirements for smoke passage, depending on occupancy. Although not highly specified at this time, it’s important for the professional firestopping contractor to understand, as its demand is increasing. Where smoke rated construction is required, architect/engineers or code/fire officials may require an "L" rated firestop system. However, not all firestop systems have been tested and listed as "L" rated …so the contractor should beware.

Additionally, there’s a relatively new test method for the exterior skin of the building where it meets the interior floor slab. The intermediate scale multistory test apparatus is used to fire test the slot between the perimeter wall and interior floor slab. Testing has also been developed over the years for "leapfrog" protection. ("Leapfrogging" occurs when fire breaks glass and "leaps" from a lower floor to an upper floor at the exterior of the building.) This is especially true in high-rise construction where full height, floor to ceiling glass is desired by the owner for maximum panoramic view. Perimeter fire protection systems are a highly technical area, where many fire protection, moisture and insulation factors need to be understood to prevent contractor liability. Testing is performed at UL, Northbrook, Ill. and Omega Point Labs, Elmendorf, Texas.

There are a number of dynamic innovations that have taken place in the firestop industry over the past few years. First, here are a few basics. According to best estimates, the firestop products market nationally ranges from about $220 million to $270 million in sales, including mineral wool packing materials used under firestop sealants. Second, growth rates, once as high as 30 percent annually, have been slowing as the market size increases and code changes emphasizing sprinkler protection have been implemented in new projects. The firestop market size growth seems to be "normalizing" at somewhere between 8 percent and 15 percent per year. Third, the contracting portion of firestopping, if a 50/50 average of material to labor is used, is estimated at $250 million. According to contractors around the United States and Canada, more owners and general contractors are awarding firestop installation contracts to a single "specialty firestop contractor," instead of the old "he or she who pokes hole, fills it," which results in more than eight trades installing firestopping.

Firestopping Comes From Variety of Trades

Contractors performing firestopping work come from a variety of trades. At the Firestop Contractors International Association, (FCIA) we’ve seen firestopping contractors come from the mechanical insulation, curtainwall or building insulation, or from the caulking trades, and yet others from trades that saw an opportunity in this area. In the past few years, we’ve even seen firestop contractor members from trades such as roofing, concrete coring, caulking and sealants, along with insulation.

Firestopping is a highly technical piece of the construction industry. To achieve success in this market, Don Sabrsula with Firesafe of Houston, a firestopping and mechanical insulation contractor, states that a "zero tolerance attitude" is needed to accomplish a firestopping project.

"Firestopping is not a ‘close enough for’ construction tolerances trade," says Sabrsula. "If a firm intentionally or unintentionally misapplies firestopping materials, or varies from the tested and listed system design, the firestop system may not work and put life safety in jeopardy."

Alec Rexroat of IMICO, Inc., and executive director of the Illinois Regional Insulation Contractors Association, seconds Sabrsula’s thoughts.

"It took a lot of convincing for field crews to understand this ‘zero tolerance’ mentality," he says. "Until they understood the program, we didn’t let them apply firestop products. These men and women have been working with ‘construction tolerances’ for most of their careers. Once they understood that the firestopping protocol is different, our operations became easier to control. The crews knew that if a variance to the tested system they were given was encountered, [they needed] to find another system in their documentation, or get an engineering judgment through the office to the manufacturer’s fire protection engineer or technical staff. This is probably the biggest challenge a contractor has to deal with in firestopping. But, once the crews, estimators and office staff understand that an unauthorized variance could possibly hurt or kill someone, they fall into step quickly."

Rexroat also mentioned that it’s crucial to have detailed knowledge of the fire wall/floor trades, along with other systems, to understand how firestopping fits into the total fire protection package.

Who Are These Firestopping Guys?

Ken Hercenberg, specifier for RTKL Associates, Baltimore, an architectural firm that performs work worldwide, asked in an opinion column in the Specifier magazine, "Where are the certified Firestoppers?" His opinion was that there should be quantifiable qualifications for a "firestopper." Without these qualifications, "Who knows who the client is getting to install these important life safety products?"

These firestopping guys, or "specialty firestopping contractors," those who focus 25 percent to 50 percent of their time on firestopping, are winning work due to their efficiencies at the "firestop zero tolerance protocol," technical expertise during interviews with architect/engineers and owners/code/fire officials, and because of their overall knowledge of the firestopping trade.

When negotiating for firestopping work, these contractors have a "leg up" on those firms who don’t focus on this highly technical field of work or don’t understand the "zero tolerance" protocol. As more "influencers" of firestop purchases understand the program, the awarding of contracts goes to those most qualified. Please don’t misunderstand, there are firestopping influencers who may not understand the protocol and still buy the "low bid that isn’t based on tested and listed systems." The point here is that the knowledge level of firestopping purchasers, whether it be owners, architect/engineers or general/trade contractors, has increased dramatically since "the old days"….way back in, say, 1995!

Separating Themselves from the Crowd

FCIA worked with Factory Mutual Approvals, a division of FM Global, to develop "FM 4991 – Standard for the approval of Firestop Contractors." This program, an International Standards Organization (ISO) quality type of program, introduces a firm to new concepts in the contracting industry. The ISO writes standards that are world-renowned and have been used by manufacturers to monitor processes during the manufacture of products used in our industry. This program applies some of the same quality process techniques that a manufacturing firm might use.

For instance, manufacturer ISO programs and FM 4991 are similar in that the FM 4991 approved contractor needs to have a quality manual in place. Quality manuals describe what the firm does step by step with a firestop project from estimate to final quality control walkthrough. An FM auditor will arrive at the firestop contracting firm’s office to audit the quality manual interviewing firm personnel to assure that the contractor has the procedures in place to install firestop with "zero tolerance" protocol. FM personnel also visit a project site during this audit to verify that the firm "does as it says it does."

FM 4991 Acceptance

The FM 4991 standard has been well received by architects throughout the country. Architects have been familiar with manufacturer ISO 9000 quality programs for products for years.

"The introduction of a quantifiable quality process for a subcontractor, run by an independent industry leader like FM has had a big impact on acceptance," according to Aedan Gleeson, Gleeson Powers, Inc., FCIA Accreditation Chair. Major firms like RTKL Associates in Baltimore; OWP&P Architects, Chicago, Boston, South Florida and California; M+O+A Architects in Denver …they’ve all begun requiring an FM 4991 approved firestop contractor in their Division 7, Section 07840, firestopping specifications. Additionally, CMD’s "SPECLink," a subscription specification program used nationally, now includes FM 4991 contractors in the specification. FM 4991 approved contractors are listed on the FCIA Web site (www.fcia.org). FM personnel also offer occasional education programs at FCIA industry conferences. These seminars have helped contractors prepare for the rigorous audit that FM Approvals conducts at the firm’s office and jobsite location.

Independent Inspection of Firestops

If so much time is being spent on the installation quality through programs like FM 4991, then why is an independent inspection agency needed to oversee installation even if a professional firestopping contractor installs firestopping?

Over the past few years, firestop industry participants have been frustrated by some firms who don’t take the time to install firestopping properly.

Jess Kray, professional engineer, Kray Cabling, Inc., Richmond, Calif., in an editorial published in The Electrical Distributor magazine, stated, "I see poor or no firestopping all the time. In fact, I have never seen a building that was properly firestopped throughout." When there are many trades trying to install firestopping, anything can happen. Some firms pay attention to the firestop installation protocol while others may not fulfill the obligations that a life safety system deserves.

Currently in our industry, there are four methods of installation for firestopping a project. First, a specialty firestop contractor may be hired by the general contractor (GC) or owner to install the complete scope of work. Second, the GC/owner may split the scope of work to penetrations only and wallops/joints/perimeter fire protection. Third, penetrations might be handled by the trades making the penetration, while perimeter, walltops and joints are installed by a professional firestop specialty firm. Fourth, the GC/owner lets the trades decide how to divide the work. As a result, some trades hire specialty firestopping contractors, while others handle firestopping on their own. On some projects, this decision leads to all trades installing their own firestop scope of work. Conceivably, more than eight different trades could be installing firestopping on a project. This is especially true when "he or she who pokes holes, fills them" is the chosen firestopping method.

This latter "freewheeling" method of purchasing has caused firestopping to become difficult to manage. How can eight trades use only one manufacturer’s tested systems to firestop a building? Such cooperation is difficult at best. Then, if eight product manufacturers are used, will inspection personnel be able to identify which product/system is which during testing? From what industry observers, architects, engineers, code/fire officials, building owners report, this type of procurement method is the most difficult to control. They credit this difficulty to the vast number of trades responsible for firestopping. And, in the event of a subsequent disaster due to poor firestopping, assigning responsibility can be difficult as firms hide behind each other to evade blame.

A situation where multiple trades are responsible for firestopping work is a clear-cut example of why independent inspection should be required. ASTM E 2174, "Standard for the Inspection of Through Penetration Firestop Systems," outlines a protocol for the inspection group to follow when quality control checking a project.

ASTM E 2174 Highlights

ASTM E 2174 outlines the inspection procedure for firestop inspectors to follow. There are quite a few steps in the process. First, a pre-construction meeting is held with the installing contractors to review submittals, details, variances, and the inspection method to be used on the project. Next, mock-ups are built for destructive testing. Then, upon project commencement, the inspector is present to witness 10 percent of the penetration treatment on the project. A final inspection is also performed.

Destructive Testing

The inspector performs destructive testing on 2 percent of the penetrations per 10,000 square feet of floor area, with a minimum of one for each type of penetration. Should there be a 10 percent variance to the installed firestop systems, the inspector will stop checking the project and require that the contractor reinspect their own work. The contractor then notifies the inspector that the work is ready to review again. However, no mention is made in ASTM E 2174 as to who will pay for the extra inspections. Forms are provided in the standard for use by the inspector to assure inspection uniformity across project types and geographical locations worldwide. These forms are submitted daily to the authorizing agency, and filed with the contractor and inspection firm.

Inspector Firm Qualifications

Inspection firms are hired by an "authorizing agency." This could be a building owner, general contractor or code/fire official organization. Qualifications for the inspector are outlined in ASTM E 2174. For instance, the inspector shouldn’t be related to the contractor firm in any way. The inspector can’t be a competitor, supplier, owner, or other related party to the installing contractor. This is to protect obvious biases. For example, if the firm’s competitor who lost the project suddenly became the inspector. Another check and balance is that the inspector should be experienced in this type of work, with references, training records and certifications as proof sources. FCIA is currently working to build an Inspector Firm Approval Program, much like the FM 4991 has for firestopping contractors. The inspector would then have quantifiable certification to review life safety firestop work.

Inspectors can also be qualified by being acceptable to the "Authority Having Jurisdiction." and through implementation of ASTM E 699, a standard for inspector firms, but not specific to firestopping.

Project Close Out

At the end of the work, the inspection firm "closes out" the project. The close out report includes critical information for retention by the building’s future engineering and management personnel. Included in this information are the as built tested system/engineering judgment documentation, any photographic record keeping, field report forms provided from ASTM E 2174 Protocol, and contact information for the installation firm and inspection firm. Additionally, a deviation percentage report is included, along with information about the inspection method used during the project.

Really, Why Have Inspection?

The late W. Edward Demings, renowned management quality advisor to corporations worldwide, states in his many books that design, marketing and service testing are all tied together in a progressive cycle. The cycle, from estimate to final inspection, requires both control from the planning, execution and inspection of finished product, in this case a firestop application. Quality monitoring is a check and balance to assure the purchaser that a process was followed that can result in a successfully assembled product or system.

So, you’re not buying this inspection concept. Well, the argument for deleting inspection might be, "If we’ve hired a qualified, FM 4991 Approved Contractor Firm, why do we need ASTM E 2174 too?" Breck Spain, Performance Contracting, Inc., Phoenix, a large specialty contractor with firestopping capabilities nationwide, states, "Regarding quality and inspection issues, there are some controversies that arise on firestopping projects due to economic reasons such as budget constraints, unexpected cost overruns, mistaken bidding, scheduling and lack of access to work. If a specialty firestop contractor is working for a GC/owner, who requests compromises to a firestop system due to details that may not be correct, (budget or otherwise) the contractor may build the firestop and document that it’s not a system in writing to the owner/general contractor. The inspector, whether independent or fire/code official from the community, is the check and balance that can make sure a true system is installed to protect life safety as he/she is not financially vested in the project, like a contractor on a hard bid project can be …"

Protocol and Engineering Judgments

Firestop contractors, whether FM 4991 approved or not, need to understand the "zero tolerance" installation protocol that must govern this work for life safety. If an annular space in the field doesn’t match up to the tested system drawing provided, the crew at the penetration must either find another tested and listed system in the documentation available, or attain an engineering judgment from the manufacturers’ technical service personnel.

Contractors need to be careful with these "engineering judgments," or "EJ’s." (Also known as "Equivalent Fire Resistance Rated Assemblies" in the FM 4991 Documentation.) The International Firestop Council (IFC), a firestopping manufacturer group, published a position paper on EJ’s. This industry position paper is clear about when a judgment should and shouldn’t be used. IFC’s position is that if a tested and listed system is available from any manufacturer, it should be used before the contractor seeks an EJ. The rationale is that tested and listed systems are proven performers while an EJ is just an opinion submitted for approval by the Authority Having Jurisdiction from the manufacturer’s technical personnel or fire protection engineers. In some areas of the country, architects/engineers and Authorities Having Jurisdiction aren’t allowing EJ’s on projects regardless of what the manufacturer or contractor thinks.

Conforming to this "no EJ" request means more research at bid time for the contractor. Using only tested and listed systems means additional research work on the installing contractor during the project. The architect/engineer, and contractor firm must find a firestopping-manufacturing firm that has a wide availability of tested and listed systems to complete a project without engineering judgments. Ten years ago, this was difficult. Today, the UL Fire Resistance Directory has more than 3,500 tested and listed systems, some with multiple variations, meaning many thousands of available systems.

Drawings Should Be Detailed

Contractors performing firestop work understand the installation protocol. They’ve been trained by the manufacturers, unions, audited by FM, and have invested time and money to perform this work to the "zero tolerance" protocol. However, it seems that the architectural and engineering plans are sometimes not detailed enough to produce a quality firestopping proposal.

To truly affect the industry, architects and engineers need to give the firestopping contractor the firewalls on the mechanical systems.

"It can’t be that hard for the engineer to click on his/her mouse and add the fire walls to the mechanical/electrical/sprinkler drawings making a firestop take off much more efficient and accurate," says IMICO Inc.’s Alec Rexroat. In response, architects say that as projects continue to become more competitive and fees are reduced, there isn’t enough money to cover additional work time in their drawings.

FCIA has been promoting a higher level of contractor quality programs through education about firestopping at its conferences, through work with both Factory Mutual Approvals (FM 4991) and ASTM (ASTM E 2174) and participation in industry forums such as National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the International Code Council (ICC) and the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI). FCIA membership growth has been strong as more firestopping contractors want important industry recognition. FCIA has included the architectural and code community in its seminars to promote better life safety through the specification of credible, quantifiably tested firestopping contractors.

The market size for firestops is large, and still growing. There have been some threats to the industry, however, through code "tradeoffs" in the International Building Code and NFPA 5000. Trade offs, where firewalls were eliminated due to sprinkler usage, has created concern in the industry about continued opportunities. Manufacturers and contractors alike still believe there’s room for growth in firestopping. We’re still a long way from 100 percent enforcement in firestopping on projects. This enforcement variance ranges from lack of inspection to contractors who may not understand the firestopping "zero tolerance" protocol. Therefore, contractors are still looking to firestopping for good business growth while fulfilling an important life safety service to the community.

This article’s purpose has been to review some new programs in the firestopping and construction industries. The firestop business continues to grow in importance worldwide, as architect/engineers, owners and general contractors realize its importance to life safety. And architects have responded by including both "FM 4991 Approved Contractors" and ASTM E 2174 Inspections" in their Section 07840 specifications.

Watch for more information about other issues in the firestopping industry in this magazine in the future. Until then, "good firestopping to all, and to all a good, firesafe night!"