Clean Agent Evolution

"Recognition, cost, and environment, not necessarily in that order, are . . . the biggest obstacles to launching a new clean agent."

Editor's note: Today's clean agents quench fires quickly without damaging sensitive contents of the structure, and they cause no environmental damage, says Joe Ziemba, marketing manager for engineered systems with Marinette, Wis.-based ANSUL Inc., which is part of Tyco Fire & Security. He discussed clean agents' role in fire suppression and the best applications for new, cleaner agents in this June 10, 2005, conversation with Occupational Health & Safety's editor.

We think of fire as being highly destructive, but many agents used to quench fires also have their own destructive effects, don't they?

Joe Ziemba: Traditionally when we think of fire protection, we think of water being put on a fire. That's been successful, and every building should have a sprinkler system. When you think of water being, say, poured out of a bucket onto a fire, the water would of course put the fire out and hopefully save the structure. Often there was collateral damage due to smoke or to water damage, depending on what is being protected in the building.

After the technology of water sprinklers was widely accepted, we started going into the computer age, and technology was so important to everything we do in life. And that's when companies were looking for something better than water, in terms of putting out the fire quicker or not damaging the contents of the room.

As such, clean agents certainly evolved, probably in the mid-'60s I would think, where they would put the fire out actually before it started and would not cause any damage to the computer equipment or the people that were there.

Yes, I was thinking about health effects of the clean agents and also environmental effects. That's what tripped up some of them.

Ziemba: Right. In fact, it was probably in 1986 or so that the Environmental Protection Agency decided that the clean agent used primarily, which was called Halon 1301, was harmful to the environment. And by 1993 we could no longer manufacture Halon in this country, so there was kind of a rush going on to find the suitable replacement that would be safe for the environment--that was a primary concern--and also put the fires out. And then the research evolved that was safer for people than Halon was and would not harm the environment at all.

So everything had to go through what was called the SNAP program from EPA. That required that any clean agent did not have any harmful ozone depleters in it.

It's still in place, the SNAP Program?

Ziemba: Yes, that's still there. It's run now in a partnership of the EPA and the National Fire Protection Association, NFPA.

Have studies been done quantifying the amount of damage attributable in typical fires to the water or other suppression agent used, versus the fire itself?

Ziemba: NFPA does extensive research in fire damage. That's a good question; I'm not certain that they have. At ANSUL and Tyco, we'll do demonstrations with the clean agents that show how quickly they put the fire out without damaging anything. One of the things that is really a positive of clean agents is they use a sophisticated detection system which senses changes in either smoke or particles or temperature in a room and really put the fire out before it hits the flame stage. That's another way to ensure that nothing will be damaged in a room. If there was a flame, the system would put it out quickly, and the agent itself would not harm the electronic equipment.

Is any cleanup necessary at all?

Ziemba: No, none at all with the clean agents. There have been some private studies; I know one of the organizations has a real nice video that shows side by side what would happen in a sprinklered room versus a clean agent room. Of course, we want to put the fire out first, but then taking it to the next step, if the company doesn't want to have any water damage or smoke damage, it shows what might happen.

Do clean agents generally put out a fire as quickly as water does?

Ziemba: It puts it out a lot quicker.

And I would assume more thoroughly.

Ziemba: Yes. Does it have to do with the removal of oxygen as a source to feed the fire, or does it act in some other way?

Ziemba: They work differently. One agent does lower the oxygen, takes that part of the fire element out so combustion is not possible. And others would take it out by absorbing the heat from the fire or the potential fire.

Is either one of those a newer or more effective strategy than the other?

Ziemba: Both would be accepted by the NFPA 2001 standard, which regulates clean agents. They work equally well.

You talked about computers. Are there other kinds of contents, or personnel for that matter, that have to be protected by clean agents and really can't tolerate water? I'm thinking of chemical stocks.

Ziemba: Some type of critical situation where you don't want to have downtime in the business--whether it be the control room for a factory, any type of situation where the computers would be handling the manufacturing of a company. More typically, it's server rooms, storage rooms that might have electronic storage and retrieval systems.

Or assets such as libraries or art museums, where valuable artifacts need to be protected so that if there is a fire, it's put out without damaging that type of content. There are different things in the country like the Gettysburg Address or the Gutenberg Bible that are protected right now by clean agents, and that's a real good example for that.

How do the systems stack up in cost?

Ziemba: They'll be more expensive than a sprinkler system. And with clean agents, each one of them is a customized system, so the cost will vary on how large an area is being protected, how much of the clean agent is needed, the piping, and the actuation system.

How are clean agent systems installed, and how are they actuated?

Ziemba: You think of a sprinkler system; I guess the mechanics are somewhat similar in terms that the agent is released from a nozzle at the top of the room. What's different is the detection that accompanies it. There'll be detection in the room that will, as I mentioned, sense if there's any changes in the heat or the smoke in the room and will alert a control panel that would give a warning or two and then actuate the system.

It is actuated automatically upon the message that comes from the detectors.
So it is actuated automatically upon the message that comes from the detectors, and then the system actuates. It's intended to work a lot quicker than a sprinkler system would be or certainly a lot quicker than if we had to have the fire service come in and put the fire out.

Getting back to the cost, is it several magnitudes more expensive than a sprinkler system?

Ziemba: Again, it varies, depending on the size of the room, but it's probably two to three times more expensive than a sprinkler system.

But for some of these applications you were talking about, you don't have a choice. You need that kind of system.

Ziemba: Absolutely. Think of what the ramifications would be if a valuable painting from the 15th Century was lost or a computer system went down and a company had to close down for a few days and lose their ability to do business in the world. That could be quite significant.

Are new agents being developed these days?

Ziemba: There's one clean agent that we work with that's new on the market. Other companies, we've heard, are doing improvements to their products. . . . Some companies are always working on products, and generally they'll go through the Environmental Protection Agency and the SNAP List again for research. To make sure, first of all, that they don't deplete the ozone and that they put the fire out.

Is there some direction the products seem to be going? Perhaps they're cleaner still, perhaps less expensive? Is there any trend that you've noticed?

Ziemba: That's an excellent question. I think the trend is to be as clean as possible for the environment.

From what you've said, it sounds like we're about there: They're about as clean as they can be made and still function in the way they have to?

Ziemba: I think the next part is to make them more economical so their use can be more widespread.

I think the next part is to make them more economical so their use can be more widespread.
Halon, which we no longer can make, was more economical.

I thought there were still some Halon systems in place.

Ziemba: There are. In the United States, if you have a Halon system, you can still use it. You can buy recycled Halon if it ever goes off. However, in Europe, as of December 31, 2003, Halon systems were mandated to be pulled out of service and replaced.

That must have been an expensive proposition.

Ziemba: Yes, and it's still going on, from what I understand.

You mentioned everyone is trying to come up with a more economical agent. What are the biggest challenges to earning wide acceptance for a new suppression technology or agent?

Ziemba: The biggest thing is to make sure, first of all, that it is a clean agent. And, second, if you're talking from a marketing standpoint, companies always want to know who already has it. With our product last year the first question was, Who has the product? Does it work for them, and how does it compare in cost?

So recognition, cost, and environment, not necessarily in that order, are the ones that are I guess the biggest obstacles to launching a new clean agent.

I see what you mean. Once you get it into a certain market--for example, artwork; once a well-known museum installs it--then other museums would look at it. And computer control rooms or server rooms are the same?

Ziemba: Exactly.

Generally, what's better about the new system you've introduced? Just the cleanliness of it?

Ziemba: Yes, the cleanliness. Again, it's completely safe for humans to be in the room. It's environmentally friendly; its environmental attributes are much lower than other clean chemical agents that are around. And the price is more competitive, I think, than we've seen in the past.

Is it being well accepted?

Ziemba: It is, very much so. I'd say nearly 100 installations in the U.S. already and probably about 200 in Europe. Europe had, of course, that December 31, 2003, deadline, for pulling out Halon; we launched the product over there first.

There'll be a shift away from carbon dioxide in occupied spaces, and you'll see more clean agents in those areas.
Another trend in the industry is the use of CO2, carbon dioxide, in occupied spaces: There'll be a shift away from that eventually, and so you'll see more clean agents in those areas, as well.

I was thinking about personnel protection at least as much as equipment protection when we started this. Clean agents as a group are safe for human occupancy?

Ziemba: According to the standard, personnel can be in the room. Evacuation of the room is always recommended; if there's a fire in the room, of course certainly evacuate immediately. But if the systems do go off, it's safe for the humans to be in there in occupied spaces. But it is recommended they evacuate.

Is there any difference in what first responders think of these systems versus a sprinkler system when they're coming to a fire?

Ziemba: I guess everyone would agree that every building should have a sprinkler system. These clean agent systems, when they are discharged, if someone enters the room later, you can't really tell that they've been discharged, except maybe a warning light on your panel. But there would be no residue left over, and the fire would have been put out.

We've worked a lot with fire service personnel. They've come to a lot of our seminars. They seem to be pretty receptive to this and supportive, of course, as with any good fire protection.

Do they work at all in vetting these systems or agents during the development stage?

Ziemba: It's developed by individual companies, and of course the fire service is aware through the standards that these are available. Generally, a building will have an identification where these systems are, for the fire service if they ever enter the building.

Is anything else happening these days that seems important to mention?

Ziemba: I just think that as we mature more as a country, there's a greater feeling to protect our history. I think these clean agents are getting a lot better acceptance in terms of libraries and museums and protecting artifacts and valuable things that we want to pass on to future generations. For that, clean agents are an ideal choice.

I don't know whether we'll get to a point where clean agents are available to homeowners or large residential structures such as condominiums. Can you foresee a time when that might happen?

Ziemba: Absolutely. In fact, I know of some clean agents that are already in private residences. These are where someone may have some valuable artwork, etc., the examples I'm thinking of. The concern, of course, is always that they are more costly than sprinkler systems.

But if you did have artwork that was truly valuable, the structure would be full of fairly valuable furnishings, and you'd think it worth the cost to save those.

Ziemba: It would depend on the individual homeowner. But this would certainly protect the home, and I think it's something that would be very acceptable to the insurance company, as well.

This article appeared in the September 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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