Lessons from the past provide guidance for tomorrow
Despite the effectiveness of halons in suppressing fire, they were phased out of production by the 1987 Montreal Protocol due to their high ozone depletion potential. Many countries complying with the Montreal Protocol banned halons consistent with the dates outlined in the treaty, and mandated the replacement of these agents with more environmentally sustainable fire suppression agents.
A premier university in the Middle East recently implemented plans for facility upgrades including the replacement of existing halon fire suppression systems protecting its critical assets. The decision was made to upgrade to a more sustainable technology that would not repeat the path of halon.
When halon was originally installed at the university, and thousands of other locations around the world, there was likely very little consideration regarding end of life cost of the agent There was no way to know about the environmental consequences or the ultimate regulatory framework to deal with those consequences. There was no way to predict that the installed halon would one day be an environmental and financial liability or that end of life considerations for the agent would need to be considered in the total cost of ownership of the agent.
Having been through the phase out of halon, this article examines the clean agent selection process for replacing halon at this premier university and the efforts they made to not repeat history. This article also summarizes the current regulatory landscape impacting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), including FM-200®, sold into clean agent fire suppression. This summary should enable specifiers and users of clean agent fire suppression to avoid the path taken by halon.
Criteria for success
To ensure they were choosing a fire suppression system that would last the test of time, the university evaluated various fire suppression systems available in the market. Their specific selection criteria included:
Space previously occupied by the halon system needed to accommodate the new system.
Speed of extingushment:
Agent performance consistent with that of halon.
Provide a high safety margin to occupants.
Non-conductive so it would not harm servers and other electronic equipment.
Avoid costly downtime in the event of system activation.
Minimize downtime due to system maintenance.
Reliable local system service and support
Agent of choice
After carefully evaluating the options available, Novec 1230 Fire Protection Fluid from 3M was determined to not only possess many of the performance attributes of halon, but also fulfil the strict agent selection criteria such as safety for occupants and environmental sustainability. Like inert gas and water mist based systems, a system based on Novec 1230 fluid is differentiated from HFC systems such as FM-200® because it reduces the climate impact of a system by more than 99%. On that basis Novec 1230 fluid is not impacted by global or regional HFC phase down schedules but, rather, is viewed as one of the technologies that will enable implementation of HFC phase-down schedules.
Novec 1230 fluid works by removing heat (rather than oxygen) and acts fast. It does not conduct electricity and, therefore, will not damage sensitive electronics. It doesn’t leave a residue after discharge. Increasingly system manufacturers are also leveraging the lower vapour pressure of Novec 1230 fluid to design systems at higher pressure. This has created opportunities for remote cylinder storage, optimised piping networks and lowered installation costs. These system features, are also enabling a fresh look at halon replacement possibilities where they were previously dismissed.
HFCs follow the path of halon in global phase-down
Like halon, HFCs have been used for decades to protect valuable electronic and paper assets that would otherwise be destroyed by traditional water sprinkler fire protection. HFCs emerged as an alternative to halon when the latter was phased out, but are now themselves the subject of regulatory negotiations ultimately aimed at a global phase-down. HFCs used in fire suppression have some of the highest global warming potentials (GWPs) relative to HFCs used in other sectors, so a brighter spotlight on their environmental impact was inevitable. The HFCs most commonly sold into fire suppression, such as FM-200, have a climate impact that is more than 3000 times that of CO2 and, with the exception of very niche applications, low GWP alternatives to HFCs are already widely used by the fire suppression sector.
For the past several years, proposals have been made under the ‘Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer’ to phase down global production and consumption of HFCs with a framework similar to the EU F-Gas Regulations. In this way, HFCs would be put on a phasedown schedule similar to the path taken by halon. Until the 27th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol (MOP27) in November 2015 in Dubai, the proposals had been blocked by a procedural issue and formal negotiations were not allowed to advance. At MOP27, all of that changed. All 197 countries represented agreed to “work within the Montreal Protocol to an HFC amendment in 2016 by first resolving challenges by generating solutions in the contact group.”
Major HFC stakeholders applaud the progress achieved at MOP27, and that progress has particular significance for the fire protection industry. Time has run out for HFCs, regardless of the industry or application. Property owners are demanding sustainable technologies and responsible solutions that will last for the life of their valuable assets.
The pressure on HFCs is not limited to the Montreal Protocol. Parties to the Montreal Protocol have already engaged in action that would help meet phase down schedules in the forthcoming agreement. The European Union has already implemented its own HFC phase down under the F-Gas Regulations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking action to fulfill the HFC component of the President’s Climate Action Plan. Specific to the fire suppression sector the U.S. EPA is soliciting input on low GWP alternatives, applications for which low GWP alternatives are not yet available; and SNAP status change options.
The fire suppression sector may be better prepared for an HFC phase-down than any other sector into which HFCs are sold. There is not just one, but multiple substitute technologies that will enable a seamless transition away from HFCs for the fire suppression sector. Inert gas systems have already played a role in enabling some regions of the world to transition away from HFCs and continued investment in water mist systems by major stakeholders points to a stronger future for that technology.
Avoid repeating the history of halon – Specify sustainable fire protection
Every day specifications are written for new building construction. Fortunately, specifiers are increasingly avoiding the path of least resistance. They are not simply specifying today what they specified yesterday or 15 years ago. Specifiers and end user are making clean agent choices that avoid repeating the history of halon. HFCs such as FM-200 are increasingly being deliberately excluded from specifications. The availability of sustainable options such as Novec 1230 fluid makes for a seamless transition for specifiers and end-users alike.
Price increases for recovered halon prompts more system replacements
The recent escalation of prices paid for recovered halon has prompted many other owners of halon installations to investigate the path taken by the university. The price paid for halon has almost doubled in the past year. This increase minimizes the cost to switch a halon-based system to a sustainable substitute like Novec 1230 fluid. Halon system owners who have decided to make the switch have also considered:
- The cost of halon is rising quickly because of diminishing supply.
- Dramatically increased costs to recharge a system in the event of a system discharge.
- The cost of downtime if agent is not available to quickly recharge a system.
The number one priority for the special hazards fire protection industry is helping protect what matters – people, valuable assets and business continuity. Although HFCs are destined to follow the path of halon there are multiple sustainable technologies available to the specifying community that can be relied on to help protect these valuable assets well into the future.
For more information, go to www.3m.com/novec1230