Getting The Best Value For Your Firestop Dollar

Raymond J. Bruno

June 1, 2003

With many different firestop products and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) systems on the market, how does a general contractor, construction manager, or building owner know they’re getting code compliance at a fair price? Open the UL Fire Resistance Directory and you will find at least 60 firestop manufacturers and more than 3,000 individual tested designs for various building service elements passing through fire-resistive rated barriers, including floor/ceilings and wall assemblies. Add to that various trades and specialty installers all claiming to be firestop experts. With all of these choices, how do you identify which is the best product for a particular application and who is the best choice to apply it? The purpose of this article is to provide guidance and direction on through-penetration firestop products, systems, and contractor selection that provides the best value for commercial buildings.

Say the word firestop, and most of us think of red caulk being shot into all of the openings. In reality, there is a great deal more to firestopping than just shooting red caulk into a hole. Firestopping is a system instead of just a product. A firestop system consists of the barrier (the fire-rated wall or floor) being penetrated, the penetrating item (such as piping, cables and conduits), and the firestopping products and design used to seal the opening. This means that you’re already making choices that affect your firestopping solution as you choose the wall or floor construction or decide how and where to route essential building services. A little time spent in advance choosing the right system will not only make the initial installation easier and more cost effective, but may also continue saving the owner time and money over the life of the facility.

It’s All About Value

Building owners want their money’s worth. General contractors or construction managers who understand firestopping and address their client’s specific needs provide added value. This gives them a competitive advantage over their competitors. Firestopping can be specific to the construction type or intended use of the facility. Data rich environments have their specific needs. Healthcare facilities have their own requirements. Firestop manufacturers armed with a complete system base will usually have the appropriate individual systems for the application. Those who don’t have as complete a base will rely on systems designed for multiple applications. While this may sound fine, the problem with this approach is that such a system may be appropriate for one application but be complete overkill for another, and project firestopping cost suffers. Ensuring the appropriate systems are installed not only assures code compliance, but eliminates cost overruns and costly job delays. It also affects fire barrier maintenance moving forward. Some general contractors and construction managers even record the firestop systems and locations during construction so the building owner or manager can more easily identify and maintain these fire barriers after the building is turned over.

To Caulk or Not to Caulk

The red caulk unquestionably has its place. For permanent installations (ones that will not require subsequent changes), a permanent firestop product such as a caulk or sealant is often the right choice. Depending on the application, either an intumescent (expanding) or endothermic (heat absorbing) product is required. For large diameter plastic pipes an intumescent device known as a firestop collar is required.

Data or telephone intensive facilities have their own unique criteria. In many of these facilities, the addition or removal of cables can be a regular occurrence. Choosing the wrong product in this environment can be a quandary that can cause headaches and downtime, as well as additional recurring costs. The often-specified composite sheet type products are essentially a steel and intumescent sandwich. These products require field fabrication and are typically labor intensive to install. Composite sheet type products are an effective firestop for applications that will not be altered. However they’re often installed without knowledge of, or consideration given to future re-entrance.

A Quick Re-Entry

There are products and systems available that maintain the life safety of the structure, while facilitating quick, easy alteration of the cabling system. We like to refer to them as "re-enterables," and recommend products that are ready to install out of the box without the need for cutting or alteration of any kind. Additionally, we prefer products that do not require tools or fasteners. Firestop putty and pillows fit that bill. Firestop putties represent a class of 100 percent solids, non-hardening products. They don’t shrink nor do they harden like most caulks and sealants. Putty excels in applications requiring subsequent changes after installation. Most firestop putties are intumescent products, meaning they will expand with heat or flames to help seal off combustible cabling jackets to prevent the spread of fire through fire barriers. Firestop pillows are ready to install out of the box and require no cutting, fastening or compression tools. Firestop pillows have all but made obsolete the older style of firestop bags and foam blocks, which are far less resilient and require tools to install. Pillows typically consist of a fibrous core material encapsulated in an intumescent coating protected by a poly bag. The fibrous core material is resilient. It will rebound after being compressed to tightly fill and seal all void areas. The poly bag is slip-finished to allowing for easy cable retrofit by simply removing and re-inserting a single pillow at the cable interface. In the event of a fire, the product expands to form a hard-packed monolithic char that impedes the passage of fire, smoke and combustion byproducts. Many early UL systems utilizing pillows required that they be secured into the opening using a wire mesh. This requirement has been removed from many systems but may still be a wise choice in situations where the firestop is located in an exposed area subject to potential tampering.

The Mechanical Advantage

A new generation of mechanical devices, best described as "fire rated cable pathways," has evolved. Requiring no field firestopping, these new devices consist of galvanized steel casings lined with intumescent liners that function as an internal fire sealing system. The devices are square in shape, allowing them to be ganged together to increase cable loading capacity within a given area. The devices allow 0 to 100 percent visual cable loading, meaning the device is firestopped when it is first installed with no cables and sealed throughout the remainder of the building’s lifespan. A 3 inch by 3 inch device has more cable fill capacity than a 4-inch conduit sleeve firestopped with caulk or putty. The square shape also allows for the cables to be installed more uniformly, leading to less unsealed interstitial space which equals a tighter seal against fire, smoke and other combustion byproducts.

Who Is Going To Do This Work?

Currently, firestopping is performed by all trades that compromise rated construction. Plumbers, insulators and electricians either perform firestopping or sub-contract it. If they’re well trained and proficient, there will be minimal problems. Many aren’t. In some areas there’s a trend towards specialty firestop contractors. These dedicated contractors provide firestopping for the entire project. Many haven taken and passed the recently developed Factory Mutual proficiency test. Since they’re solely focused on firestopping, they’re often more system and code savvy and can provide a one stop competitive answer to project firestop needs. It also simplifies and reduces the cost of managing the firestopping portion of the project. Another advantage is, unlike other contractors, specialty firestop contractors remain on the job until completion and can tie up any loose ends that could delay a building’s completion.

Knowledge Is Power

There is an old saying, “Knowledge is power.” This certainly applies to firestopping. You shouldn’t be totally reliant on others when it comes to the information that you will use to make critical firestopping decisions regarding your projects. To ensure that your company receives high quality, code compliant work, you must know how to ask for it and how to recognize when you have received it. Many general contractors as well as construction management firms have created a firestopping champion on their staff. This individual serves as the go-to-guy for firestop-related issues on the job site. This is a great idea. While you can’t reasonably expect this person to know all 3,000 of those UL systems, he or she can be trained to know where to go to get the right answers when they are needed.

Comprehensive firestop training is available for virtually all aspects of this process. The FCIA (Firestop Contractors and Installers Association) provides training and certification methodology for installers. Courses are also available that provide AIA accreditation. Keep in mind that no one is better versed when it comes to firestopping then the leading manufacturers who have invested so heavily in the testing required for a full and complete, UL tested and classified system base. They can be an invaluable source for training, technical assistance, and online information.

What’s The Answer?

Early in my career I had a boss who was always saying things like "plan the work and work the plan," or failing to plan is like planning to fail." This is true for design-build. With the number of penetrations, systems and potential installers on a project it certainly applies to firestopping. Manage the firestop bid package. Evaluate the building type and intended use and standardize UL systems for the project. Standardizing puts you in control, reduces project costs and simplifies bid comparisons.

The hardest part of getting the best value for your firestop dollar is determining what you need and who should do it. Like most other things, doing the hard work up front will make the rest of the project a whole lot easier.