Following the SAPPHIRE PLUS launch earlier this year, Gulf Fire catches up with Alan Elder from Johnson Controls and Bart Goeman at 3M, to learn more about this new product and discuss the impact on the fire protection market and related industries.
What changes have you noticed in the fire industry over the period of your careers?
Alan: When I started in industry, the assets we were protecting were mainly industrial types, whereas over time we’ve transitioned to the protection of electronics and higher value assets – data centres, art galleries, etc. In the early years of my career, one of the more popular agents was CO2. Halon 1301 was introduced early in my career, a very good fire-fighting agent and at that time considered to be the first real clean agent. There were other chemical agents prior to that, but they had issues, mainly related to toxicity. As environmental issues became better understood, Halon was eventually phased out and replaced by the next generation of clean agent – HFCs and HCFCs. They then came under scrutiny themselves as the environmental landscape shifted towards climate change, not just ozone depletion. This is where Novec 1230 fluid from 3M came in, as a ‘third generation’ clean agent.
Bart: Yes, 3M launched Novec 1230 fluid in 2001, and it was a real innovation in the fire protection market. HFCs initially filled the void created by halon, but over time there’s been a greater understanding and need for more sustainable solutions such as Novec 1230 fluid by 3M and other natural agents (inert and water).
Today, what demands are being made of fire protection systems?
Alan: One of the big areas is data and data centres with infrastructure. We also see lots of applications in power generation and oil and gas, but ultimately it’s data and business continuity that are critical. Then the other area is heritage, where it’s not so much business continuity as the protection of irreplaceable assets.
What are the biggest factors currently keeping fire protection specifiers and buyers awake at night?
Alan: I think knowing that the system installed will be effective in the event of a fire. In the past 20 years we’ve seen the introduction of European and International standards for the clean agent systems introduced after Halon, that didn’t exist in the past. Prior to this there was NFPA and where the end user applies the European, International or NFPA standards with third party approved products, they have a much better sleep at night!
Is fire protection taken seriously?
Bart: For many, yes. However, there is a danger that fire suppression is considered a ‘tick in the box’ exercise for the purposes of insurance. Some companies don’t have protection at all… or assume they’re adequately covered with sprinklers. However, sprinklers are designed to protect property and save lives, not necessarily protect data which is at the heart of many businesses. With clean agents, business continuity is also protected but this is not always recognised in all geographical areas.
What role do approvals and standards play?
Bart: The importance of approved system components is widely recognised, but it’s critical that the system itself is tested and approved. If you buy a system fully tested and proven (compliant with standards and regulations), that system will work for its intended use. Avoiding system approval testing may save money in the short term, but it’s safer to know your system will work as intended in the event of a fire.
Alan: There are three components. Firstly, the legislative requirements of components. In Europe we have the CPR (Construction Products Regulations), which demand that the components of a system are manufactured and tested in accordance with harmonised standards. Secondly, the components themselves need to come together and integrate into a system, together with the extinguishing agent. Finally, and critically, the system should be installed to one of the recognised standards, either NFPA 2001, EN15004 or ISO-14520.
What about the legislative landscape? How is that driving decision making?
Bart: The regulatory landscape is driving change. What’s important is that every specific risk has a specific solution, system and agent. With the regulatory landscape, in the past there was wide accessibility to halon, HFCs, now it’s shifting to inerts and Novec 1230 from 3M. Regulations are pushing companies into a direction that they’re not used to, by focussing on sustainable solutions. The whole market must adapt to using sustainable technologies, but this brings into question companies’ expertise with the systems, their capability to design and properly install those new systems. The challenge to the end-user therefore, is to select companies that have approved, certified systems using these sustainable agents.
Alan: The phasedown of HFCs goes beyond Europe, but we must recognise there’s a different pace in Europe compared to other regions. The European F-Gas Regulation is dictating a very aggressive phase-down compared to a slower pace under the Montreal Protocol, which is a global agreement. Nevertheless, we’re seeing global environmental pressure on HFCs, favouring inert and Novec 1230 from 3M.
Cost is of course always a consideration when it comes to specifying fire protection systems, but how well understood is the total cost of ownership?
Bart: It’s not always understood, and for many end-users their decision is often based on what solution vendors in the supply chain or consultants have in their portfolio, whereas this is not necessarily the best choice. There’s a risk the end user focuses on unit cost rather than the total cost of ownership (TCO).
Alan: Many people simply aren’t that bothered. Responsibilities in a project vary – people in supply chain don’t always prioritise long term cost, they want cost effectiveness today. The end user with the longer-term view probably should be more concerned about TCO … but then there’s lot of subjectivity in cost of ownership, which covers space/footprint of containers, frequency of discharge, refill costs, lifetime of system (10, 15, 20 years?) – all of these things, many of them subjective, directly affect the total cost of ownership.
SAPPHIRE PLUS Launch:
So SAPPHIRE PLUS is an exciting launch for Johnson Controls. Can you tell us more about the product?
Alan: At Johnson Controls, we evaluated the technologies that exist in the market, and our own products based on 25 or 42 bar storage pressure. We found limitations in the way in which systems could be designed and configured, in respect to location of container relative to hazards, and also limitations in the quantity of agent that could be stored in, and discharged from the container, due to the relatively low pressure. We decided to increase pressure up to 70 bar, enabling a more flexible system design, and meaning the space that’s available in the facility is used more effectively. So, increasing the pressure allows the containers to be stored further away from the protected hazard and in many cases, reducing pipe size. It also provides an opportunity to reduce the number of containers. Introducing selector valves enables the protection of multiple hazards from a single bank of containers, and a reduction in the overall footprint.
We’ve also taken the opportunity to increase the temperature range. Most systems operate at a temperature range, either 0 to 55°C or -20 to 50°C. SAPPHIRE PLUS systems may be designed to operate between -20 and 65°C, enabling their use in areas of the world where specifications require a higher upper limit. And, in addition, the system is approved to all European standards and International standards, with a common hardware platform.
How does SAPPHIRE PLUS differ from other types of fire suppression systems, for example inert gas or aqueous?
Alan: One of the key benefits of inert is the ability to place containers remote from the protected area and allow for use of selector valves on multi-hazard protection. With SAPPHIRE PLUS, we’re often able to replicate this key benefit of the inerts, without the drawback of inert systems which is the number of storage containers and consequently the space required.
We think with SAPPHIRE PLUS we’re taking the best features of both inert and chemical agents, and rolling them into one system with smaller footprint, and less complicated pipework design. Versus aqueous systems, we don’t consider SAPPHIRE PLUS as ‘in-kind’ with sprinklers or water-mist. Whereas water systems are typically designed to suppress fire for building protection and infrastructure, clean agent systems are designed to extinguish fires rapidly, providing business continuity and business protection.
Is SAPPHIRE PLUS suited for occupied spaces?
Bart: The large margin of safety for Novec 1230 from 3M makes SAPPHIRE PLUS perfectly suitable for occupied space. The big advantage is the multizone functionality to protect the different sized rooms. The principle is that the entire bank protects the largest risk and a subset of the containers are dedicated to the smaller rooms. Sometimes the container(s) allocated to a room may result in a concentration higher than the specified design concentrations. Due to the high safety margin of Novec 1230 fluid, there is no risk at all, resulting in a lot more design flexibility. With the use of selector valves this feature will become more prominent.
SAPPHIRE Plus is based on Novec 1230 fluid from 3M. What benefits does this agent bring?
Bart: With Novec 1230 we have five key value arguments – firstly, sustainability. Novec 1230 has no impact on ozone layer and a global warming potential of less than one, therefore it’s not part of any phase-down programme. Secondly, 3M’s Blue Sky Warranty provides a guarantee that Novec 1230 is a long term solution, which will not be affected by future regulatory phase-downs. When it comes to safety margin – in fire protection the key parameter is NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level), and Novec 1230 has the highest margin of safety for people. Space and weight can be reduced – Novec 1230 systems require fewer containers compared to inert gas. And finally, speed of extinguishing – the chemical agents standards requirements demand a discharge in less than 10 seconds and extinguishing less than 30 seconds, which is significantly less than inert gas.
How has SAPPHIRE PLUS been received in the market?
Alan: It’s been very positive in terms of the reaction from our distributors and customers. SAPPHIRE PLUS takes away some of the headaches they have with more conventional systems, especially in respect to storage space, pipe sizes, design flexibility and remote storage.
As part of the launch, we’ve introduced an interactive tool that allows end users to familiarise themselves with the components in the system and allows people to look at impact of increasing volume of protected space and amount of equipment required. This has also been well received.
Are there are any new trends or challenges that are likely to shape the fire protection industry over the next few years?
Alan: New emerging industries represent new challenges for the fire protection industry, for example lithium-ion batteries which are particularly difficult to handle. It’s challenging to keep pace with technological developments, especially in areas such as digital, lithium-ion batteries and energy storage. Fire protection system specifiers need the ability to properly evaluate and differentiate the right solutions from companies selling only one technology promoting it for an application because that’s the only product they have. In some cases, these technologies are just not suitable.
If you had to give fire purchasers/specifiers three pieces of advice to take away from this, what would they be?
Bart: 1) Consider that regulatory models are in place and will affect the choice of agent. 2) Evaluate the total cost of ownership and look wider than the upfront system cost or the cost of the agent. 3) Ensure specifications are tight enough so you eliminate non-suitable solutions, non-compliant and non-approved components. Most importantly, consider what is the best solution for your specific risk.
Alan: 1) Third party approvals are critical, covering the individual system components, the flow calculation software and the complete system tested to recognised protocols such as UL, FM, and the relevant Annexes in the EN and ISO standards. 2) Understand what you are buying from a sustainability perspective 3) Review and incorporate design standards. Compliance with the latest editions of industry standards, namely EN15004, ISO14520 or NFPA 2001, is critical.