NIA Article

Article for "The Insulation Outlook" - Firestop Issue

by William J McHugh 

 
Industries all go through phases of development, growth, maturity and eventual decline. Although the technology has existed for over 20 years, many in the firestop industry is still between development and growth. People are still learning the appropriate installation requirements for the industry. Growth rates are high, use of the products spreading into various types of buildings.

Although the market shows signs of development and growth, there are also signs of maturity as well. Many manufacturers participate in the market (sign of maturity) making sales of products and contracting a competitive market. Lack of acceptance of the firestop systems industry installation protocol has falsely made the contracting industry look "mature". This could hardly be closer to the truth.

This article focuses on where the firestop systems materials and contracting industry is today and in the near future.

Four years ago, I wrote an article on Firestop Systems for the NIA Outlook. In that time, major changes have taken place in the industry:

   
Changes taken place
  • Walltops/Joints systems testing standard written
  • Perimeter Fire Containment Systems testing standard written
  • Firestop Specialty Contractors' share growing
  • AIA Masterspec rewritten in 1998
  • Model Building Codes, BOCA, SBCCI, ICBO being merged into one code, "The International Building Code"
  • National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) writing a new code
  • "L" Ratings for smoke protection playing larger role in industry
And, some things have remained the same.
  • Contractor Installation and Documentation Quality varies between firms
  • General/Trade Contractors having difficulty choosing firestop subs due to variances in bid proposals.
  • Quality Firestop installation firms promoting "Industry Standards"
  • Firestop Contractors International Association (FCIA) and FM Global introducing a Contractor Accreditation Program introduction, October, 2000
"The Manufacturers"

The Firestop System Products market has been growing rapidly for the past 10 years. According to the Firestop Contractors International Association, the firestop products market is estimated at approximately $130,000,000 - $170,000,000 annual sales. There are about 8-10 major manufacturers and another 50 firms participating in the market. New entrants have been limited to acquisitions and joint ventures or strategic alliances. Strategic alliances occur when a manufacturer is not "basic" in the manufacture of a product they wish to market and therefore join forces with another firm that produces, but may not market to the firestop industry. Manufacturers can round out their passive fire protection product options through Alliances with Grease Duct Wrap systems or electrical systems. Over the past few years, there have been some purchases of small manufacturers by other firms and consolidation as well. New testing of existing products has reduced the amount of material needed to firestop a penetration or joint/gap, wall top or perimeter.

Although there are signs of maturity in the market (consolidation, fierce competition, large number of manufacturers) growth rates for this market are reported from 5-30% depending on the firm. Many new products have been introduced for "Top of Wall" and "Perimeter" firestop system assemblies. Traditional wrap strip systems have been modified to optimize performance and reduce both material and installed cost. Extensions of the intumescent technology used for firestop systems have been in seals for fire doors tested under new "positive pressure" requirements in the building code.

   

In the future, manufacturers will need to continue to test their products to broaden the systems available. The need to meet code officials/architect/engineer and owner's requests for more actual tested systems vs. engineering judgements used on firestop systems in buildings seems to be increasing nationally. And, testing of materials in "optimized" firestop systems allows manufacturers to develop the competitive edge needed in today's construction economy.

Additionally, manufacturers will need to offer product education to users of their systems in addition to Certification/Accreditation programs offered by the Firestop Contractors International Association. Manufacturer education will give contractors the opportunity to understand the intricacies of each supplier's product line.

   
"The Contractors"

The Firestop Contracting market has only recently experienced significant growth. This could be due to the increased knowledge the industry trades and General Contractors have gained through education, field experiences or unpassed and "financially disastrous" inspections. Market size estimates for Firestop Contracting are up to approximately $300,000,000 potential. Currently estimates for the size of the "Firestop Contracting Market" are at approximately 60,000,000 to 80,000,000 nationally and growing at between 25 and 40% per year. And, since 75% of the market is still untapped, significant growth possibilities abound for the firestop contractor firm.

This incredible Firestop Contracting growth can continue as both the construction industry and the firestop segment are increasing for the near future. There is another unknown upside to firestop systems installation growth as buildings begin to retrofit that were built before the major building codes required their installation.

Contractors will be dealing with a better trained inspector force verifying quality of the installed firestop systems installation. Those contractors who choose not to follow the "Firestop Installation Protocol" installing firestop products vs. "firestop Systems" could experience significant disruption to their business as requests to correct work become overwhelming.

As the "Firestop Installation Protocol" becomes known by more buyers and inspectors of firestop systems, significant growth of the specialty firestop contractor's role for installations could occur.

   

Additionally, inspectors seem to demand actual tested firestop systems in lieu of manufacturer engineering judgements decreasing demand for this service from the manufacturers technical service department. The affect is that contractors will need to know tested and listed systems of many manufacturers to stay abreast of systems availability. Choices contractors make about the manufacturer partners may also be determined by the manufacturer's depth of testing availability for their products. And, if authorities having jurisdiction will not accept "EJ's", the contractor will need to have relationships established with manufacturers that can "fill the bill" for the Specialty Firestop Contractor.

   
The Code Official

Code and Fire Official participants in the Firestop industry vary.

   
The Architects

The architectural community has been tightening specifications for Firestop systems for the past 7 years. Specs in 1992 required a spec data sheet for a "Firestop Product". In 1994 the request became more prevalent for "Tested and Listed System Documentation" in addition to product data sheets. Third party independent inspection, as required on Fireproofing projects, began to appear in firestop systems specifications in 1994. This requirement is also part of the 1999 AIA Masterspec as well. And, for the past 10 years, architects have written into specifications that "one contractor install firestop systems". General contractors, however, answer that direction of responsibility for firestop systems installation is the GC's charge, not the architects. "Methods and Means" seems to be the concept that GC's point to when assigning Firestop Systems work.

   
The General/Mechanical Contractors

"Generally, GC's and other contractors we work with want to do the right thing. However, the construction industry's low bid system creates an environment where all parties want the right thing, but no one is willing to pay for it", states Al Rexroat, Illinois Regional Insulation Contractors Association, Chicago.

Currently, General/Mechanical Contractors are subjected to wide variations in prices from contractors. This variation means a difficult decision for the general contractor. Should the General/Mechanical Contractor use a low, maybe inadequate price over a well prepared an documented price? If their competitors use the "lower number" and the GC/Mechanical chooses not to, then the contractor may potentially lose the project. Therefore, by fault of the "low bid system", the contractor must choose from quotations with a large bid variances.

Most important, the general/mechanical contractor has the responsibility to assure specified products and systems are installed per project specifications. Trouble ensues when a subcontractor or trade contractor is not installing products to firestop systems tested and listed details. Trouble can be in the form of fire/building inspectors discovering problems in installed firestop products not meeting requirements of a "system". Firestop systems are usually the last trade to be assembled before finishing construction of walls around mechanical, electrical and other penetration systems. Discovery of misapplied firestop systems can mean building delays at the critical closeout phase of construction, meaning the certificate of occupancy may not be available when needed by the owner of the building. Liquidated damages due to the tardiness can result. Then, it's panic for the firestop contractor to install the appropriate tested and listed systems quickly and with high quality.

   
What's new in the installation industry since the 1996 NIA OUTLOOK article?

- Labeling - Code Officials, architects/engineers and insurance companies are beginning to require "labels" applied near the firestop system assembly. This aids inspectors during evaluation of installed systems, saving time asking the contractor "what system is this?" Labels are custom made by the contractor or supplied by the manufacturer.

3rd Party, Independent Inspection - Architects/Engineers and code officials are requiring that an independent inspection take place after firestop application to verify the fire seal's installation to tested system documentation.

Specifications - Architect/Engineers have current specifications based on AIA   MASTERSPEC, a document well used in the industry. The requirement suggestions to users of the document include 3rd party.

Firestop Sealants - various types of firestop sealants continue to be used in this industry combined with backing materials all installed to the "tested system recipe" to form a true "firestop system".

Silicones - Still product of choice when moisture resistance and movement capabilities is required. Unless intumsecent silicone, silicones are limited to non combustible piping, joints/gaps and cables.

Intumescents - Many new intumescent sealants have appeared over the past few years.

Most manufacturers have introduced "new" or "new and improved" intumescent firestop sealants.

Latex - Latex firestop sealants are still available for some applications around metal pipe and joints/walltop applications

Ceramic Fiber & Endothermic - This firestop sealant, designed for high service temperature applications, is used for diesel exhausts and "hot pipes" that may need firestop sealant.

Firestop Spray Systems - New endothermic, elastomeric and intumescent spray systems have been introduced to the market for application at top of walls and some penetration systems.

Intumescent Wrap Strips - These products have basically stayed the same. However, more testing has been done by the manufacturers to reduce the quantity of material required to attain the same fire ratings. Sizes and thicknesses have been optimized to keep Manufacturers competitive in the marketplace.

"PreAssembled Devices" - Sizes on these device systems for plastic pipe systems have been optimized for efficiency and competitiveness in the market. Some of these devices have been used for "cast in place" firestop assemblies, or for multi directional penetrating items.

   
Firestop Systems Testing in General

Changes in the testing for firestop systems have come as a result of the construction industry's varied conditions met in the field every day. Listed below are a few of the changes that have come in the last few years:

"L" Ratings - Firestop Systems are now tested to measure the amount of air movement through a firestop system at ambient (cold air) and 400F (hot air). At 400F, most intumescent materials would have begun their expansion further sealing the opening. This rating is to simulate smoke movement in buildings and is meant to meet code requirements for "smoke and/or fire resistance rated construction" assemblies.

"Perimeter Containment Systems" - New full scale testing has been used for perimeter fire containment systems at the junction between fire resistance rated floor construction and rated or non rated exterior curtainwall systems.

Joint Systems/Walltop Testing - A new standard for testing expansion joint systems, UL 2079, has been developed to determine suitability of use for products in assemblies subject to movement from expansion, contraction, wind sway or seismic activity.

   
Other Market Segments

Firestop specialty contractors may also be involved in Grease & Air Duct Protection, Electrical Conduit protection and, in some cases, structural steel fireproofing. Cementitious, Fibrous and intumescent coatings for structural steel have also been sources of work for firestop installation contractors, some who already participated in those markets.

   
Firestop Installation Specialist Firms

Specialty Firestop Contractors possess knowledge that provides value to the general/mechanical contractor. The value is in economic form as these specialists "ground speed" is faster than a trades person due to knowing the availability of competitive and tested systems for particular applications. The specialist firestop contractor also offers value by providing a quality control system that can improve the overall quality of the installation. A specialty firestop specialist contractor, with an accredited installation quality process, followed up with 3rd party independent inspection can help solve the problems of contractor installation consistency. The result is improved life safety for building owners and occupants, property protection and continuity of the business' operations.

   
Labor

Specialty firestop contractor firms can be either union of non union. These firms hire those workers who best suited for installing firestop systems. There has been no one trade that has claimed all firestop systems installations in the union contracting environment. Specialty Firestop contracting firms around the U.S. have been using Pipe Covering Insulators, Laborers or Carpenters as background for installation of firestop systems.

   
Firestop Contractors International Association (FCIA) The Firestop Contractors International Association is an organization committed to promoting the concept of "The Specialty Firestop Contractor". FCIA offers the professional specialty firestop contractor the opportunity to network with other contractors from around the country, learn about new products, techniques and technologies that keep member firms at the forefront of the firestop systems industry. Active committees include:
  • Accreditation - FCIA is jointly developing with FM Global (Factory Mutual) a firestop systems contractor installation protocol. This program, based on the FCIA "Firestop Industry Manual of Practice".
  • Technical - This group of FCIA Member Contractors is writing the technical manual "Firestop Industry Manual of Practice", to which Accredited Contractor Firms  will be tested and audited.
  • Liaison - Code and specification development is an important process for this infant Industry, Firestop Specialty Contracting.
  • Communications - Industry articles, a full service website and communications with the influences in the construction industry is vital to promotion of the interests of the Specialty Firestop Contractor.

Member contractors benefit from exposure on the FCIA Website, (www.fcia.org) informative meetings and seminars, access to manufacturers and testing laboratories, industry leading speakers and the opportunity to approach the code and specification communities with a unified voice. For more information about the FCIA, call Bill McHugh at 630-690-0682.

   
"The Firestop Business Risks"

The Firestop Systems Contracting business seems to be a growing business. Although there is much opportunity, there is also a downside business risk. A "tight ship" is required to operate a "Firestop Operation". Tested Firestop System documentation must be used for estimating, submittals, crew installation "roadmap" and as-built records. Variances that change the firestop system used must be handled well by field personnel. Firestop Systems that are installed outside the parameters of a tested system may or may not perform in a fire. Other variances that affect your profitability are timing of installation (Where did that duct, cable tray or ceiling come from?).

Timing can slow your work considerably. Annular space size variances past your comfort zone also could dramatically increase the amount of firestop material used on a project, or change the firestop tested system selected.

   
"Firestop For Life, property and business

Since these Firestop Systems are installed for life safety, property protection and continuity of operations, the specialty firestop contractor must conform to the "firestop systems installation protocol". Remember, it could be you, your family or loved ones involved in a fire. Additionally, business interruption insurance never recoups losses of business "growth momentum" while you'll never regain the full value of the assets lost from a fire. Protect all these assets and life using tested and listed firestop systems installed properly for everyone's benefit.... and yours.

   
Bill McHugh is Executive Director of the Firestop Contractors International Association, 1257 Golf Circle, Wheaton, IL 60187 630-690-0682. E-Mail info@fcia.org The article's endnotes, specific scenarios, references and reprint permission can be obtained from the author.

W.J.M., April, 2000

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