Fire performance a safety priority

With concerns that faulty and non-compliant cables are infiltrating the electrical industry worldwide, Ufuk Colak stresses why corners should never be cut when manufacturing, specifying and installing fire performance cables.

COMMENT, MEP

With concerns that faulty and non-compliant cables are infiltrating the electrical industry worldwide, Ufuk Colak stresses why corners should never be cut when manufacturing, specifying and installing fire performance cables.

As architects design bigger and more complex buildings, incorporating safety through the use of fire performance products is becoming ever more important.

The safety of electrical systems should not be left to chance, but this could happen if specifiers and contractors choose price ahead of reliability, durability and third-party certification. When specifying and installing fire performance cables, such features should be top of the agenda.

The effects of poor design

Independent fire investigations show that many major fires could have been prevented if both active and passive fire protection measures had been included as inherent design features in a building.

The British Approvals Service for Cables (BASEC) has also witnessed a greater number of sub-standard cables infiltrating the UK. This, it believes, is a direct result of rising copper prices. It blames the nature of the electrical industry, where price often becomes the principal reason for choosing a cable.

Fire performance cables provide power distribution to essential life safety systems such as emergency lighting and fire alarms, so it is paramount that these products are manufactured to the highest specifications.

Some manufacturers or importers may be tempted to cut corners by reducing the amount of copper used in the manufacturing process or using insulation materials that do not have the correct degree of flame retardance, which means that potentially some wholesalers, distributors and contractors are exposing themselves to unnecessary risk.

If contractors use inferior cables that do not conform to the correct Standards it could only be a matter of time before the safety of an electrical installation is compromised. In such circumstances the wholesalers, distributors and electrical contractors could be held to account.

Product development

Responsible manufacturers would warn against installing fire performance cable that is not compliant with British Standards or approved by a third-party such as BASEC or the Loss Prevention Certification Board (LPCB).

The latest generation of fire performance cables are designed to meet the much more arduous fire survival needs that are now demanded by regulators and specifiers.

These higher demands are being seen increasingly in the Middle East for applications such as life safety systems, property protection and fire-fighting systems in buildings that must remain functional in the event of a fire.

It's during the development of these high performance products that fire testing facilities take centre stage. Inhouse fire testing laboratories allow manufacturers to run quality assessments on new and existing cables plus materials; type approval for products or contracts; customer service demonstrations; and development of new fire specifications for the industry.

This ensures that cables comply with stringent British and European Standards, which set the benchmarks to provide specifiers and installers with the correct knowledge and understanding about a cable's fire survival time, flame propagation and smoke emissions.

They also set out the environment and equipment that should be used when conducting fire tests, coupled with details to make sure all tests relevant to a particular standard are carried out under the same conditions.

The fundamental feature of a fire testing facility is that it allows cables to be observed throughout the development process. The cables can be observed during the whole test process and this allows researchers and testers to record any changes during different stages of testing.

Engineers can then make calculated judgments on how well cables have performed and how they can be improved. There are three main tests conducted on fire performance cables: fire resistance, flame propagation and smoke emission.

The fire resistance test measures the time that the cable retains its electrical state and continues to function under set conditions. This can be tested by the cable being exposed to different conditions: fire alone; fire and impact; fire and water; or integrated fire, water and impact.

Impact tests simulate falling materials in a building, with water blasts used to replicate sprinklers or firefighting hoses in a fire situation. Flame propagation tests examine how far a cable burns in a vertical position before burning stops.

Smoke emission tests involve burning cable in a smoke cube to determine the amount of emissions they give off.

The importance of quality

With the Middle East undertaking major construction projects, fire safety issues will continue to be a priority. Ensuring a cable carries the correct third-party approvals is a small price to pay for reassurance.

Combined with the meticulous examination of manufacturing processes and controls by cable producers, third-party approvals help to guarantee continually high quality levels.

Some manufacturers subject their cables to more rigorous tests than are required by legislation so products are designed beyond the criteria set in British and European standards and provide the best quality available.

Ufuk Colak is marketing product manager with Prysmian Cables and Systems UK.

 

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