UL fire testing facility demonstrates burn techniques

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

NORTHBROOK, Ill.--Massive and impressive engineering was the main attraction at a tour here Nov. 14 of Underwriters Laboratories' fire testing facilities.
I was one of about 110 people--fire service professionals, AHJ officials, engineers, manufacturers, academics, government officials--who donned blue hard hats and heavy-duty red protective glasses for the tour, which was part of a two-day Smoke Characterization Seminar sponsored by the testing group.
The fire testing facility comprises two buildings, called Building 11 and Building 5. The first, Building 11, cost $15 million to build in 1996 and has four testing areas including a huge room--like the size of a high school gymnasium--where they do massive burn tests. The 200-ton ceiling can be lowered to six feet high and raised up to 48 feet high to enable UL personnel to clean up the mess from one test and set up the for the next.
Tom Chapin, UL's director of North American Fire and Security, said they can do major tests here every other day. They've torched 15,000 gallons of jet fuel and 3,000 pounds of toilet paper rolls.
"You name it, we've probably burned it in the last 10 years," Chapin said.
Last year, they built a one-story house (with a $1 million United States Fire Administration grant) and burned it and rebuilt it 21 times. "We burned it down, then built in again and added sprinklers and burned it down again," Chapin explained.
The burns are done for testing reasons and for research. Clients--like manufacturers or insurance companies--come here so that an independent third-party (UL) can determine how certain products and/or system designs will perform in a fire.
UL is one of three Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories, called NRTL's. The others are Factory Mutual and ETL.
The burn projects cost between $10K and $250K, Chapin said, depending on the scale and scope of the project.
We also saw a small-scale burn in one of the other testing areas, an enclosed room set up to look like an office, with a series of different detectors and a line of turquoise lights that illuminated a cross-section of the room. They started a fire in a trashcan, and later introduced ventilation into the room.
Building 5 had lots of heavy-duty cranes, including one that swooped across the span of a room carrying enormous brick walls (constructed here). These brick walls (which contain materials to be tested, like metal fire walls, within them) are used to test myriad protective coatings in life-like fire conditions. Chapin said that after 9/11, some fire testing for a NIST study of materials used in the construction of the World Trade Center was subcontracted to UL and done here.
The final stop in the tour was the Steiner Tunnel (one of two at the facility--the second is used just for wire and cable), which is like a 30-foot-long "horizontal furnace." In the tunnel, which was developed by UL employee Al Steiner in 1935, materials are tested for a number of standards to see how quickly they burn. We did not see a test, but were shown the foam material that was used to line the walls for soundproofing at the Station Nightclub in Rhode Island, the site of a tragic fire in that killed 100 people in 2003. We were told that the material took six seconds to burn in the tunnel.

For more on the seminar, see the January issue of Security Systems News.