Passive fire protection

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Fire-resistance rated wall assembly with fire door, cable tray penetration and intumescent cable coating. Mortar intumescent.jpg
Fire-resistance rated wall assembly with fire door, cable tray penetration and intumescent cable coating.

Passive fire protection (PFP) [1] is an integral component of the components of structural fire protection and fire safety in a building. PFP attempts to contain fires or slow the spread, such as by fire-resistant walls, floors, and doors. PFP systems must comply with the associated listing and approval use and compliance in order to provide the effectiveness expected by building codes.


Structural fire protection

Fire protection in a building, offshore facility or a ship is a system that includes:

Main characteristics

The aim for fire protection systems is typically demonstrated in fire testing the ability to maintain the item or the side to be protected at or below either 140 °C (for walls, floors and electrical circuits required to have a fire-resistance rating) or ca. 550 °C, which is considered the critical temperature for structural steel, above which it is in jeopardy of losing its strength, leading to collapse. This is based, in most countries, on the basic test standards for walls and floors, such as BS 476: Part 22: 1987, BS EN 1364-1: 1999 & BS EN 1364-2: 1999 or ASTM E119. [2] Smaller components, such as fire dampers, fire doors, etc., follow suit in the main intentions of the basic standard for walls and floors. Fire testing involves live fire exposures upwards of 1100 °C, depending on the fire-resistance rating and duration one is after. More items than just fire exposures are typically required to be tested to ensure the survivability of the system under realistic conditions.

To accomplish these aims, many different types of materials are employed in the design and construction of systems. For instance, common endothermic building materials include calcium silicate board, concrete and gypsum wallboard. During fire testing of concrete floor slabs, water can be seen to boil out of a slab. Gypsum wall board typically loses all its strength during a fire. The use of endothermic materials is established and proven to be sound engineering practice. The chemically bound water inside these materials sublimes. During this process, the unexposed side cannot exceed the boiling point of water. Once the hydrates are spent, the temperature on the unexposed side of an endothermic fire barrier tends to rise rapidly. Too much water can be a problem, however. Concrete slabs that are too wet, will literally explode in a fire, which is why test laboratories insist on measuring water content of concrete and mortar in fire test specimens, before running any fire tests. PFP measures can also include intumescents and ablative materials. The point is, however, that whatever the nature of the materials, they on their own bear no rating. They must be organised into systems, which bear a rating when installed in accordance with certification listings or established catalogues, such as DIN 4102 Part 4 or the Canadian National Building Code.

Passive fire protection measures are intended to contain a fire in the fire compartment of origin, thus limiting the spread of fire and smoke for a limited period of time, as determined the local building code and fire code. Passive fire protection measures, such as firestops, fire walls, and fire doors, are tested to determine the fire-resistance rating of the final assembly, usually expressed in terms of hours of fire resistance (e.g., ⅓, ¾, 1, 1½, 2, 3, 4 hour). A certification listing provides the limitations of the rating.

Contrary to active fire protection measures, passive fire protection means do not typically require electric or electronic activation or a degree of motion. Exceptions to that particular rule of thumb are fire dampers (fire-resistive closures within air ducts, excluding grease ducts) and fire door closers, which must move, open and shut in order to work, as well as all intumescent products, which swell, thus move, in order to function.

As the name suggests, passive fire protection remains inactive in the coating system until a fire occurs. There are mainly two types of PFP: intumescent fire protection and vermiculite fire protection. In vermiculite fire protection, the structural steel members are covered with vermiculite materials, mostly a very thick layer. This is a cheaper option as compared to an intumescent one, but is very crude and aesthetically unpleasant. Moreover, if the environment is corrosive in nature, then the vermiculite option is not advisable, as there is the possibility of water seeping into it (because of the porous nature of vermiculite), and there it is difficult to monitor for corrosion. Intumescent fireproofing is a layer of paint which is applied along with the coating system on the structural steel members. The thickness of this intumescent coating is dependent on the steel section used. For calculation of DFT (dry film thickness) a factor called Hp/A (heated perimeter divided by cross sectional area), referred to as "section factor" and expressed in m−1, is used. Intumescent coatings are applied as an intermediate coat in a coating system (primer, intermediate, and top/finish coat). Because of the relatively low thickness of this intumescent coating (usually in the 350- to 700-micrometer range), nice finish, and anti-corrosive nature, intumescent coatings are preferred on the basis of aesthetics and performance.

In the eventuality of a fire, the steel structure will eventually collapse once the steel attains the critical core temperature (around 550 degrees Celsius or 850 degrees Fahrenheit). The PFP system will only delay this by creating a layer of char between the steel and fire. Depending upon the requirement, PFP systems can provide fire ratings in excess of 120 minutes. PFP systems are highly recommended in infrastructure projects as they can save lives and property.

PFP in a building can be described as a group of systems within systems. An installed firestop, for instance, is a system that is based upon a product certification listing. It forms part of a fire-resistance rated wall or floor, and this wall or floor forms part of a fire compartment which forms an integral part of the overall fire safety plan of the building. The building itself, as a whole, can also be seen as a system.


This I beam has a fireproofing material sprayed onto it as a form of passive fire protection. Spray fireproofing on an ibeam.jpg
This I beam has a fireproofing material sprayed onto it as a form of passive fire protection.


The most important goal of PFP is identical to that of all fire protection: life safety. This is mainly accomplished by maintaining structural integrity for a time during the fire, and limiting the spread of fire and the effects thereof (e.g., heat and smoke). Property protection and continuity of operations are usually secondary objectives in codes. Exceptions include nuclear facilities and marine applications, as evacuation may be more complex or impossible. Nuclear facilities, both buildings and ships, must also ensure the nuclear reactor does not experience a nuclear meltdown. [3] In this case, fixing the reactor may be more important than evacuation for key safety personnel.

Examples of testing that underlies certification listing:

Cable tray cross barrier fire test per German DIN 4102 Tray cross barrier.jpg
Cable tray cross barrier fire test per German DIN 4102

Each of these test procedures have very similar fire endurance regimes and heat transfer limitations. Differences include the hose-stream tests, which are unique to Canada and the United States, whereas Germany includes a very rigorous impact test during the fire for firewalls. Germany is unique in including heat induced expansion and collapse of ferrous cable trays into account for firestops, resulting in the favouring of firestop mortars, which tend to hold the penetrating cable tray in place, whereas "softseals", typically made of rockwool and elastomeric toppings, have been demonstrated in testing by Otto Graf institute to be torn open and rendered inoperable when the cable tray expands, pushes in and then collapses. [4] Spin-offs from these basic tests cover closures, firestops and more. Furnace operations, thermocoupling and reporting requirements remain uniform within each country.

In exterior applications for the offshore and the petroleum sectors, the fire endurance testing uses a higher temperature and faster heat rise, whereas in interior applications, such as office buildings, factories and residential, the fire endurance is based upon experiences gained from burning wood. The interior fire time/temperature curve is referred to as "ETK" (Einheitstemperaturzeitkurve = standard time/temperature curve) [5] or the "building elements" curve, whereas the high temperature variety is called the hydrocarbon curve as it is based on burning oil and gas products, which burn hotter and faster. The most severe, and most rarely used, of all fire exposure tests is the British "jetfire" test, [6] which has been used to some extent in the UK and Norway but is not typically found in common regulations.

Typically, during the construction of buildings, fire protective systems must conform to the requirements of building code that was in effect on the day that the building permit was applied for. [7] Enforcement for compliance with building codes is typically the responsibility of municipal building departments. [8] Once construction is complete, the building must maintain its design basis by remaining in compliance with the current fire code, which is enforced by the fire prevention officers of the municipal fire department. [9] An up-to-date fire protection plan, [10] containing a complete inventory and maintenance details of all fire protection components, including firestops, fireproofing, fire sprinklers, fire detectors, fire alarm systems, fire extinguishers, etc. are typical requirements for demonstration of compliance with applicable laws and regulations. In order to know whether or not one's building is in compliance with fire safety regulations, it is helpful to know what systems one has in place and what their installation and maintenance are based upon.

Changes to fire protection systems or items affecting the structural or fire-integrity or use (occupancy) of a building is subject to regulatory scrutiny. A contemplated change to a facility requires a building permit, [11] or, if the change is very minor, a review by the local fire prevention officer. Such reviews by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) also help to prevent potential problems that may not be apparent to a building owner or contractors. Large and very common deficiencies in existing buildings include the disabling of fire door closers through propping the doors open and running rugs through them and perforating fire-resistance rated walls and floors without proper firestopping. [12]

"Old" versus "new"

Generally, one differentiates between "old" and "new" barrier systems. "Old" systems have been tested and verified by governmental authorities including DIBt, [13] the British Standards Institute (BSI) and the National Research Council's Institute for Research in Construction. [14] These organisations each publish in codes and standards, wall and floor assembly details that can be used with generic, standardised components, to achieve quantified fire-resistance ratings. Architects routinely refer to these details in drawings to enable contractors to build passive fire protection barriers of certain ratings. The "old" systems are sometimes added to, through testing performed in governmental laboratories such as those maintained by Canada's Institute for Research in Construction, which then publishes the results in Canada's National Building Code (NBC). Germany and the UK, by comparison, publish their "old" systems in respective standards, DIN4102 Part 4 (Germany) [15] and BS476 (United Kingdom). "New" systems are typically based on certification listings, whereby the installed configuration must comply with the tolerances set out in the certification listing. The United Kingdom is an exception to this, whereby certification, although not testing, is optional.

Countries with optional certification

Fire tests in the UK are reported in the form of test results, but contrary to North America and Germany, building authorities do not require written proof that the materials that have been installed on site are actually identical to the materials and products that were used in the test. The test report is also often interpreted by engineers, as the test results are not communicated in the form of uniformly structured listings. In the UK, and other countries which do not require certification, the proof that the manufacturer has not substituted other materials apart from those used in the original testing is based on trust in the ethics or the culpability of the manufacturer. While in North America and in Germany, product certification is the key to the success and legal defensibility of passive fire protection barriers, alternate quality control certifications of specific installation companies and their work is available, though not a legislative or regulatory requirement. Still, the question of how one can be sure, apart from faith in the vendor, that what was tested is identical to that which has been bought and installed is a matter of personal judgment. The most highly publicised example of PFP systems which were not subject of certification and were declared inoperable by the Authority Having Jurisdiction is the Thermo-Lag scandal, which was brought to light by whistleblower Gerald W. Brown, who notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the inadequacy of fire testing for circuit integrity measures in use in licensed nuclear power plants. This led to a congressional enquiry, significant press coverage and a large amount of remedial work on the part of the industry to mitigate the problem. There is no known case a similar instance for PFP systems which were under the follow-up regime of organisations holding national accreditation for product certification, such as DIBt [13] or Underwriters Laboratories.

See also

Related Research Articles

Firewall (construction)

A firewall is a fire-resistant barrier used to prevent the spread of fire for a prescribed period of time. Firewalls are built between or through buildings, structures, or electrical substation transformers, or within an aircraft or vehicle.

Vermiculite A hydrous phyllosilicate mineral which expands significantly when heated

Vermiculite is a hydrous phyllosilicate mineral which undergoes significant expansion when heated. Exfoliation occurs when the mineral is heated sufficiently, and commercial furnaces can routinely produce this effect. Vermiculite forms by the weathering or hydrothermal alteration of biotite or phlogopite. Large commercial vermiculite mines currently exist in the United States of America, Russia, South Africa, China, and Brazil.

Fire door

A fire door is a door with a fire-resistance rating used as part of a passive fire protection system to reduce the spread of fire and smoke between separate compartments of a structure and to enable safe egress from a building or structure or ship. In North American building codes, it, along with fire dampers, is often referred to as a closure, which can be derated compared against the fire separation that contains it, provided that this barrier is not a firewall or an occupancy separation. In Europe national standards for fire doors have been harmonised with the introduction of the new standard EN 16034, which refers to fire doors as fire-resisting door sets. Starting September 2016, a common CE marking procedure was available abolishing trade barriers within the European Union for these types of products. In the UK, it is Part B of the Building Regulations that sets out the minimum requirements for the fire protection that must be implemented in all dwellings this includes the use of fire doors. All fire doors must be installed with the appropriate fire resistant fittings, such as the frame and door hardware, for it to fully comply with any fire regulations.


Fireproofing is rendering something resistant to fire, or incombustible; or material for use in making anything fire-proof. It is a passive fire protection measure. "Fireproof" or "fireproofing" can be used as a noun, verb or adjective; it may be hyphenated ("fire-proof").

An intumescent is a substance that swells as a result of heat exposure, thus leading to an increase in volume and decrease in density. Intumescents are typically used in passive fire protection and require listing, approval, and compliance in their installed configurations in order to comply with the national building codes and laws.

Fire protection

Fire protection is the study and practice of mitigating the unwanted effects of potentially destructive fires. It involves the study of the behaviour, compartmentalisation, suppression and investigation of fire and its related emergencies, as well as the research and development, production, testing and application of mitigating systems. In structures, be they land-based, offshore or even ships, the owners and operators are responsible to maintain their facilities in accordance with a design-basis that is rooted in laws, including the local building code and fire code, which are enforced by the Authority Having Jurisdiction.

A firestop or fire-stopping is a form of passive fire protection that is used to seal around openings and between joints in a fire-resistance-rated wall or floor assembly. Firestops are designed to maintain the fireproofing of a wall or floor assembly allowing it to impede the spread of fire and smoke.

Firestop pillow

Firestop pillows are passive fire protection items, used for firestopping holes in wall or floor assemblies required to have a fire-resistance rating. The products must be used in accordance with a valid certification listing, subject to listing and approval use and compliance.

Within the context of building construction and building codes, "occupancy" refers to the use, or intended use, of a building, or portion of a building, for the shelter or support of persons, animals or property. A closely related meaning is the number of units in such a building that are rented, leased, or otherwise in use. Lack of occupancy, in this sense, is a "vacancy".

Cable tray

In the electrical wiring of buildings, a cable tray system is used to support insulated electrical cables used for power distribution, control, and communication. Cable trays are used as an alternative to open wiring or electrical conduit systems, and are commonly used for cable management in commercial and industrial construction. They are especially useful in situations where changes to a wiring system are anticipated, since new cables can be installed by laying them in the tray, instead of pulling them through a pipe.

Circuit integrity

Circuit integrity refers to the operability of electrical circuits during a fire. It is a form of fire-resistance rating. Circuit integrity is achieved via passive fire protection means, which are subject to stringent listing and approval use and compliance.

A fire-resistance rating typically means the duration for which a passive fire protection system can withstand a standard fire resistance test. This can be quantified simply as a measure of time, or it may entail a host of other criteria, involving other evidence of functionality or fitness for purpose.

Fire test

A fire test is a means of determining whether fire protection products meet minimum performance criteria as set out in a building code or other applicable legislation. Successful tests in laboratories holding national accreditation for testing and certification result in the issuance of a certification listing. The listing is public domain, whereas the test report itself is proprietary information belonging to the test sponsor.

Area of refuge Location in a building designed to hold occupants during a fire or other emergency

An area of refuge is a location in a building designed to hold occupants during a fire or other emergency, when evacuation may not be safe or possible. Occupants can wait there until rescued or relieved by firefighters. This can apply to the following:

Pressurisation ductwork

Pressurisation duct work is a passive fire protection system. It is used to supply fresh air to any area of refuge, designated emergency evacuation or egress route.

Smoke exhaust ductwork

Smoke exhaust ductwork, in Europe, is typically protected via passive fire protection means, subject to fire testing and listing and approval use and compliance. It is used to remove smoke from buildings, ships or offshore structures to enable emergency evacuation as well as improved firefighting. In North America, fireproofed ductwork may be used for the purpose of smoke exhaust, but it is more common to use unfireproofed return air ductwork, whereby no fire testing or listings are employed to qualify the ductwork for this use. Evidence of this North American practice can be found in the 2010 National Building Code of Canada, Mechanical Exhaust System, as well as Sections 909.16.2 and 910 of the 2015 International Building Code.

Grease duct

A grease duct is a duct that is specifically designed to vent grease-laden flammable vapors from commercial cooking equipment such as stoves, deep fryers, and woks to the outside of a building or mobile food preparation trailer. Grease ducts are regulated both in terms of their construction and maintenance, forming part of the building's passive fire protection system. The cleaning schedule is typically dictated by fire code or related safety regulations, and evidence of compliance must be kept on file by the owner.

A building joint is a junction where building elements meet without applying a static load from one element to another. When one or more of these vertical or horizontal elements that meet are required by the local building code to have a fire-resistance rating, the resulting opening that makes up the joint must be firestopped in order to restore the required compartmentalisation.

Fire damper

Fire dampers are passive fire protection products used in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) ducts to prevent the spread of fire inside the ductwork through fire-resistance rated walls and floors. Fire/smoke dampers are similar to fire dampers in fire resistance rating, and also prevent the spread of smoke inside the ducts. When a rise in temperature occurs, the fire damper closes, usually activated by a thermal element which melts at temperatures higher than ambient but low enough to indicate the presence of a fire, allowing springs to close the damper blades. Fire dampers can also close following receipt of an electrical signal from a fire alarm system utilising detectors remote from the damper, indicating the sensing of heat or smoke in the building occupied spaces or in the HVAC duct system.

Penetrant (mechanical, electrical, or structural)

Penetrants, or penetrating items, are the mechanical, electrical or structural items that pass through an opening in a wall or floor, such as pipes, electrical conduits, ducting, electrical cables and cable trays, or structural steel beams and columns. When these items pierce a wall or floor assembly, they create a space between the penetrant and the surrounding structure, which can become an avenue for the spread of fire between rooms or floors. Modern building codes generally require a service penetration firestop to seal the openings around penetrants, in order to restore the fire-resistance rating of the parent assembly.


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