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How NFPA Activities Affect the Vinyl Industry

Apr 2013

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is a consensus standards organization that writes codes and standards. For most people in the vinyl industry this sentence may seem irrelevant but as the following explanation points out, what NFPA does or does not do can, and will affect building safety and the materials chosen by specifiers.

NFPA, a non-profit corporation, has a board of directors and a management team, including a president (CEO), a treasurer (CFO) and a series of vice-presidents in charge of codes and standards, legal affairs, research, communications and other functions. Its purposes are to promote the science and improve the methods of fire protection and prevention, electrical safety and other related safety goals; to obtain and circulate information and promote education and research on these subjects and to secure the cooperation of its members and the public in establishing proper safeguards against loss of life and property. The board of directors appoints a Standards Council, which establishes rules for the development of codes and standards by a full and open consensus process. This consensus process affords all interested parties full participation and ensures they will be heard and that they can expect fair and equal treatment. It is the Standards Council which issues all new and revised documents, with full consideration of all the activity throughout the process (including committee meetings and general membership annual meetings).

In the United States, safety requirements are based on an assortment of regulations, from government bodies as well as codes and standards from private organizations that are not always uniform. The organizations that develop codes and standards can have an important influence on the way manufacturers ultimately design their products and how they are selected by material specifiers.  It is important, therefore, to start by defining some of the most commonly used terminology.

  • Regulations are documents issued by governmental bodies which list the general objectives and act as a framework for more detailed requirements.
  • Codes are documents, often cited by regulations, with specific requirements that could be valid for special applications. They are issued by companies, particularly NFPA and the International Code Council (ICC). One example is the National Electrical Code (NEC), NFPA 70, which governs the rules for all electrical installations and systems in the United States. Other examples are the Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) or building codes.
  • Standards are documents referred to either in regulations or codes, and which give techniques to quantify results, such as test methods and specifications. They are issued by companies, particularly NFPA, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL 94). Examples include fire tests such as ASTM E84, Steiner tunnel, or UL 94, requirements for special areas such as air conditioning systems (NFPA 90A) or trains (NFPA 130) or specifications such as ASTM D1787 for PVC pipe.

NFPA is the only American company that writes both codes and standards. It issues important codes like the National Electrical Code, Life Safety Code, NFPA Fire Code, and NFPA Building Code and other standards that regulate vinyl products. NFPA issues a very large number of documents addressing multiple aspects of safety, particularly fire safety. Although it’s impossible to discuss them all, I want to highlight a few key documents and some activity that help secure a continued market for safe vinyl products.

The National Electrical Code regulates all electrical installations, including electrical and optical fiber optic cables, which are often made with PVC insulations and jackets. NEC Chapter 3 is a key chapter as it describes the wiring methods and materials, including, in Article 300, a general guide through the code with the requirements for many applications and materials including plenums, ducts, and other spaces used for air circulation.  Conductors for General Wiring (Article 310) describes the materials to be used and the standard that addresses the material composition and the fire performance of the material, usually based on a small-scale UL fire test. Other articles in Chapter 3 address different types of cables and raceways, including, NM cables (or nonmetallic sheathed cables, often made out of PVC), and in Articles 352, 356 and 362, PVC conduits of different kinds. Chapter 5 contains all the special occupancy requirements, including hospitals (Article 517) and places of assembly (Article 518). Articles 725 and 760, together with Chapter 8, govern all the rules for control, signaling, fire alarm and communications cables while Article 770 governs fiber optic cables.

A few years ago proposals were made to replace all vinyl cables in these applications, a very profitable market for vinyl compounds that is based on very high fire safety, by fluoropolymer cables. These cables are much more expensive and would have been based on unjustifiably severe fire safety requirements. After a long series of debates and votes these proposals failed due to work on NFPA 90A.The vinyl industry is represented by members on various NEC committees who try to ensure that safety is not lowered and that vinyl products are used whenever they can be used safely.

NFPA decided many years ago that all rules for combustibles in plenums are regulated by the air conditioning committee which issues NFPA 90A. I joined this committee and was able to convince fellow committee members and a majority of NFPA society members that the proposed changes for fire safety of plenum cables were not technically justified. NFPA rules then demanded that the NEC make no changes to fire safety requirements in ducts and plenums unless they were accepted first by NFPA 90A.

NFPA 130 and NFPA 502 regulate trains and tunnels, including all electrical circuits. They have often received proposals with a bias against PVC and halogenated materials, including proposals to prohibit halogenated materials and to ban optical fiber cables. These proposals did not succeed, partially due to my contributions in debates and comments. Other proposals improving fire safety requirements in stations and trains were successful, thus opening the requirements for materials with increased fire safety.

The NFPA Fire Tests committee issues many fire tests, including NFPA 262, fire test for plenum cables, formerly known as UL 910, NFPA 286 room-corner fire test for wall linings, and NFPA 701 fire test for fabrics and vinyl films. It is essential to maintain vigilance so that these tests are regularly upgraded to maintain fire safety and to allow new materials to be used wherever they can be used safely. I also serve on this committee.

The key use of fire tests in codes is in the Building Code and the Life Safety Code. The Building Code is responsible for products in buildings until a building has been completed and a certificate of occupancy has been issued while the Life Safety Code addresses safety for contents and for human egress after the building is completed. The ICC has an alternate Building Code but no alternate Life Safety Code. The NFPA Building Code and Life Safety Code have a joint committee that provides the fire safety regulations associated with products for interior finish, furnishings and contents in habitable areas of buildings.

The Fire Code (NFPA 1) regulates contents and industrial activities that occur in buildings that are already occupied. Because it has a significant amount of overlap with the Life Safety Code it adopts the fire safety regulations of the Life Safety Code in habitable areas.

A small Hazard and Risk of Contents and Furnishings committee issues mainly guidance documents on prevention of flashover and on fire safety of highway vehicles. It also issued a standard for calculations of fire loads in buildings and the use of these fire loads to assess the need for active fire protection measures (such as sprinklers or smoke detectors). This standard, NFPA 557, gives guidance that the fire safety of the materials or products used should be taken into account when making such calculations, which is a way of giving benefits to the use of material with increased fire safety.