don’t insulate your business from diversity and increased revenues

Raymond J. Bruno

June 1, 2001

Modern buildings require a myriad of essential building services. Besides the mechanical and plumbing services that the insulator is familiar with, there are electrical, data, and communications cabling, conduits, or ducting. The common denominator for all of these building service elements is the need to penetrate walls and floors. For the insulator, the openings required to pass these service elements through the walls and floors, can also represent a portal to business diversification as well as increased project revenue and profits.

The sealing of these openings is known as through-penetration firestopping or just firestopping for short. All the major building codes require it. The pipes, ducts, and cables in firestopping jargon, are known as penetrants. If you consider the number of pipes, ducts, and cables that run through a building, and then consider the number of times these penetrants extend through rated walls or floors…the numbers can be staggering even on relatively small projects.

Job Sequencing and the Insulator’s Opportunity

What is the opportunity for insulators? Firestopping is often treated as a problem rather than an opportunity at the jobsite. Many trades actively avoid the issue rather than embrace it as a value added part of their contracts. For the insulator, job sequencing and even the inspection process favors the insulator as the mechanic of choice. In the normal sequence of the job, the pipe or duct insulation is the last thing to go in the hole. Thus, the insulator is at the job at the right time to take care of the firestopping. Additional opportunities are presented by other trades. For example, since the electrical rough-in inspection typically occurs before the holes are sealed, the electrical inspector in many cases does not consider firestopping inspection to be his responsibility. If the electrical inspector doesn’t inspect for it, there’s a good chance the electrician isn’t going to do it! These unprotected penetrations will most likely be discovered during final inspection. The electrician, now off the job, is looking for firestopping help. These circumstances plus normal job sequencing are the key to the insulator’s firestopping opportunity.

Pain or Gain?

A successful firestopping contractor who I know explained his success this way… "firestopping for most people is a real pain – and I’m the doctor!". Like other successful contractors, successful firestopping contractors have invested the time to educate themselves and become the experts. They are the not only experts for the general contractor (GC) but often for the inspectors as well. The same complications that the electrical contractor sees as a problem, the firestopping contractor views as an opportunity as well as an entrance barrier to competition in its business. Their willingness to embrace firestopping and work at it virtually guarantees their success. No pain…no gain!

Look Before You Leap

Firestops are considered to be systems. Differences in floor or wall construction, the size, number, type, and position of penetrants, and the size of openings all create variables that may need to be addressed. Insulated pipes pose a special hazard and should utilize intumescent (expanding) firestop products since some insulating materials will burn away during a fire. The most widely used directory of tested firestop systems is the UL Fire Resistance Directory published annually by Underwriters Laboratories Inc. This book contains upwards of 3,000 designs referred to as classified systems dedicated solely to the sealing of through-penetrations.

Getting Started…

Unlike other construction tasks, it isn’t necessarily just the firestop mechanic’s skills that influence the GC. In most cases, it’s the contractor’s knowledge that wins and gets the jobs. There is a certain amount of complexity to the firestopping. Expertise is valued! The contractor who studies the Fire Resistance Directory and has established a good working relationship with a strong supplier and a pedigreed manufacturer will be in the best position to win.

What is involved? The first thing to do is to investigate the opportunity. Discuss firestopping with the GC’s or other construction influences with whom you deal. You’ll probably find that they’re looking for a good installer. Next contact firestop manufacturers, visit their websites, or request literature. If it looks like firestopping is an opportunity that you want to pursue, contact Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (847-272-8800) and order the Fire Resistance Directory. Finally, take on a small job…one you feel comfortable with, and use it as a learning experience. That pedigreed manufacturer we mentioned should be able to provide the assistance you need to get you over the rough spots. The lessons learned on smaller jobs will build your confidence when it comes time to tackle the big opportunities!

On the following pages, you’ll learn more about opportunities, specifications, codes, regulations, resources and liability issues in the firestopping industry. The information serves as a guide to assist you, not to overwhelm or deter you. Opportunities abound in this industry and the best informed will thrive!