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Fire Performance of Insulated Metal Panels

 

The International Building Code has different requirements regarding the use of specific materials depending on the configuration of the building as well as its end use. In this episode of Metal Minutes, we discuss how to interpret insulated metal panels under these codes and how they can provide necessary protection against fires.

 

Lexi:

Welcome everyone to another episode of Metal Minutes by Cornerstone Building Brands. Today, I've got Amanda Karnes, Director of Applications and Mark Klos, Director of R & D for our Building Envelope Solutions segment. How are you guys today?

Mark:

Fine.

Amanda:

Great.

Lexi:

Great. Alright. Today's focus is the thermal efficiency and fire performance of our insulated metal panels. Amanda or Mark, do you all want to kind of give some background into the insulated metal panels and the stipulations around them?

Amanda:

Insulated metal panels, do follow a lot of stringent codes regarding fire performance. Oftentimes there's a lot of question in regards, what section of the code insulated metal panels actually fall under. Oftentimes we are classified in chapter 14 of the International Building Code or IBC under the section under metal composite materials, but we start there and then we actually get pushed over into chapter 26 because of the nature of the insulated metal panel.

Amanda:

The insulated metal panel is a sandwich panel with a foam plastic covered by two metal skins, which is the reason as to why it actually puts us into the foam plastics portion of the code, which is actually chapter 26. There's always a lot of confusion in the marketplace in regards to where insulated metal panels actually fall within the code. It's okay to say that they fall both within chapter 14 and chapter 26, but whenever we actually get into the meat and potatoes of the individual test requirements and the limitations or lack of limitations, we should really be following the chapter 26 line by line.

Mark:

I think that's exactly true, totally different materials, different characteristics of how they burn between the MCM materials and foam plastics that are contained in the IMPs that Cornerstone makes. And because of that, the code treats them totally different as well as with the testing you have to do.

Lexi:

Okay. I guess an insulated metal panel, since it comes with the installation, it alleviates the need for insulation when you're building a building, correct?

Amanda:

Correct. It's a multi-component system. Rather than having individual components of a typical wall construction, where you have your gypsum, your weather barrier and then your rain screen product or insulation in between there, depending on where you're located within the United States, this is an all in one solution where it provides your air, vapor, moisture protection and also the thermal performance.

Mark:

And I think the key is, is that is as the title lends itself to this podcast, fire and thermal, we wouldn't even be talking about foam plastics, we wouldn't even be using foam plastics because they are essentially solid petroleum in building construction, except that they're exceptionally well in providing thermal resistance. The energy code and every other type of regulation always has a complimentary regulation that you have to guard against. Everything has a positive benefit and everything has a negative deficit. And what we have to do is because of the thermal characteristics of foam plastic are that good and that cost efficient, that then we have to do our due diligence, Mandi and I, to make sure that they're safe with regards to fire.

Lexi:

Okay. Why are insulated metal panels held to a different standard when it comes to spray foam or any type of insulation?

Amanda:

Well, quite honestly, up until a few years ago and probably even a little bit more work is needed within the code, spray foam doesn't necessarily have its own section. And neither does insulated metal panels. However, as codes evolve and develop, both products are being added into a little bit more of a conversation in regards to what happens whenever a fire does occur on a building. It is something that is being added to the code. There's a lot of room for interpretation right now as to what's required and what may not be required.

Lexi:

Okay, let's go ahead and get into the actual fire performance of insulated metal panels since that's kind of our main focus today. Is the fire performance something that is included in the International Building Code? Or are there others that IMPs have to be in compliance with?

Amanda:

The International Building Code really is the governing entity within the United States. However, there's always additional codes such as Factory Mutual or Underwriters Laboratory that are more insurance based, providing a level of comfort with the actual building owner to where their requirements for Factory Mutual or Underwriters Laboratory are a little bit different in regards to testing and application. Within the International Building Code, there's always reference to other entities such as ASTM or NFPA. These entities will actually set the standard and the actual testing configuration that is then put into the IBC. Everybody is working on their individual, how to make sure that the products are tested and are safe whenever installed properly, but then, the IBC actually puts those specifications or standards into one document to be referenced.

Lexi:

Okay. You touched on testing. Can you talk a little bit about the kind of individual fire tests that are done on IMPs to make sure they're in compliance?

Amanda:

Mark, I'll let you take that one.

Mark:

Thanks, Mandi. No, I think the testing that Mandi and I do is centered around a couple of issues, some safeguards that we're looking at and what the code is trying to perform. Why there is a building code basically is that if there's a fire, you want to make sure that the fire doesn't become historically like a great fire, where one building catches the adjacent building, catches the whole block, catches the whole city catches on fire of the great fires of old. We've heard memories of the Chicago fire, the San Francisco fire back the turn of the century. And the second is, is that we know that some things burn. We know that that environment, you still have carpet, you have furniture that's upholstered. You're always going to have items inside a building that can burn so you want to give the occupants enough time to get out of the building safely.

Mark:

And the third leg of that stool, if you will, is that you don't want to make it too dangerous for firefighters who have to, as part of their job, try to control that fire. You want to manage the toxicity, let's say, of the smoke that comes when that product's burning. Fire is a given. Now let's just manage it. The tests we do really center on those items that we look at, how long it takes for this specimen, if you will, whether full scale or small scale to become completely consumed, what level of smoke comes out of it? How much flame does it produce once it ignites? When does it ignite? What temperature does it ignite? All these things are logical if you look at the three things they're trying to get out of the building codes, trying to regulate to make a material safe for use in a building.

Mark:

I could get into specifics of the tests, but I think it's better for people to understand that Cornerstone not only wants something that just meets the code, we also look for things that are even more than adequate for the code, but the code again, when it comes to the fire is a pass/fail criteria. You don't get an A if you do 10 minutes longer than the next guy, it's a pass/fail criteria. And the key to that pass/fail criteria that's only in the United States, is beyond all that tests, most commercial buildings have automatic sprinklers that in the event of a fire, those funny little heads that you see above your head when you're working in an office or a hospital, auditorium, water comes down and cools the fire, lowers the smoke. It allows the occupants to get out in a more manageable way. There's a belt and suspenders to the American regulatory system for with regards to fire. First, you have to meet these standards, then you sprinkler.

Lexi:

Okay. It sounds like a lot goes into the testing of the panels to make sure that they're in compliance and safe.

Mark:

There is.

Amanda:

And I just like to add to that, that the product in itself is tested, and one of the items that we address more so in the engineering side of things is the application. Making sure that the product is applied in the right application to support that testing is definitely critical to the overall performance and how it will actually respond to a fire incident.

Lexi:

Okay. What you're saying is that even though the product has been tested and passes the way that it is installed or if it's used for certain applications, might kind of complicate that a little bit?

Amanda:

It does. There's an extra layer of thought that needs to go in from any design perspective where installing the product or designing the product in a walk in configuration might need to be slightly adjusted to make sure that the fire performance is being maintained. Around window openings, or multi-story windows and possibly compartmentalization, even though it's not part of the testing that is required, there's an additional level of education that manufacturers go ahead and take to ensure that the product is installed properly.

Mark:

Yeah, I think what's important to what Mandi's saying too, is it's ever evolving. That foam started being used only about 1950s or so in Europe, it came to our shores, there was some issues and they were used in residential structures, just foam insulation, foam board, styrofoam. They found issues. It caused the industry to become regulated. At that point, only the insurance companies, as Mandi mentioned before, it's important to note that a Factory Mutual, United Laboratories, UL, other ones were the only people really involved. They were worried about the insurance for buildings or structures that had foam plastics in it. They started developing tests. Mandi, am I correct? By the time we hit 2000, only in this century, did these standard tests really not have only an insurance lab component to them, that there actually was ASTM or independent lab testing to meet those regulatory requirements. It's only been 20 years that insurance companies weren't really the standard by which this material was applied.

Amanda:

Yeah, that's correct, Mark. And those insurance entities, actually the testing standards that they put into place are, I would actually say that they're more stringent in some applications than just some of the other code related items. One's not right or wrong, it's just what is required for that building and that actual building owner. If they're going to use Factory Mutual or Underwriters Laboratory as their insurance entity, there's a separate set of standards that we need to follow.

Mark:

And that's crazy because as Mandi sees in the application side, there is; 20 years isn't a long time so you have a lot of design professionals that still believe you have to have UL or FM approval to sell a product like this because it evolved in the last 20 years so much from not only the testing, but also as Mandi said, the details that involved in the testing. It's not just testing a block of foam, it's testing it installed in a certain way. And that's all good for the industry. That makes everyone feel more comfortable that everyone did their job to make sure that they performed adequate testing to make it a safe product.

Lexi:

I think it goes without saying that insulated metal panels as a whole, they've been tested, they've been approved so they can withstand the safety of a fire, but what are the benefits of using insulated metal panels for thermal efficiency over other types of metal panels or other types of building materials?

Mark:

From an R and D point of view, it clearly is the leader cost benefit. That's not to say that Cornerstone is only choosing something because it is that, but it makes it a product that's more beneficial for the end customer. That the cost of producing foam for the amount of thermal insulation value it provides is more than double superior to anything else. Yes, there's things that insulate better, but they cost two, three, four, 10 times more. Vacuum insulated panels, these super, these air gels, these other things. Then you go backwards to mineral wool or fiberglass, their level of insulation at cost. Still yes, they're cheaper, but they don't insulate as well. From a true cost benefit standpoint, foam plastics are A, number one you cannot do better than that and Cornerstone is invested that as part of our business to make IMPs using foam plastics.

Lexi:

Okay. But what makes IMPs the superior building material when it comes to thermal efficiency? What about it makes it the best?

Mark:

If I could take that again, Mandi, if we take that same foam insulation and when a manufacturer, not necessarily Cornerstone, makes foam insulation, in the production of it there is an efficiency that is peaked as soon as that material is made. And then it tends to have some of the gases inside of that leach out through the core and it loses its thermal efficiency. But the key for maximizing that foam plastic and the thermal efficiency is an IMP surrounds it with metal or nearly surrounds it, except for just around the edges, which it really thermally breaks the face on the outside, but it makes the best partner with foam plastics so that the thermal efficiency of the day it's made is not lost to anywhere near the degree of just a straight board of foam insulation may be used on a roof or as insulation inside your house as it is with our manufacturing process. It's the best partner of the two that foam plastic with metal skins is what makes an IMP even better.

Amanda:

And I just add to that, that you're not looking at multiple components to obtain that R value or that U factor of the wall assembly. What is different with insulated metal panels is it actually has spanning capabilities also. It's rigid enough with the metal skins to provide longer spans attachment into structural supports. And it really does go ahead and not only provide that thermal performance, but will span and structurally be adequate for a project.

Lexi:

Okay. Great stuff. Alright. Is there anything else that you want our listeners to know about the fire performance of IMPs?

Amanda:

I guess the only other item that I would say would be that even though we have the products that are tested, we can't test every application that our products are being applied. There are times in which we need to use engineering judgment to go ahead and show code compliance or approval or even in the R and D phase, look at a different method of doing full scale testing, possibly some small scale tests to determine worst case scenario. And then from there, we get an all-encompassing test procedure or protocol that actually go ahead and show compliance.

Amanda:

There are entities out there, third parties that are providing some support to make it easier for application reasons and testing. Inner-Tech is a great example where they have design listings and show really the user or the design community that the product is tested and when used in these applications, that it meets the criteria. They've tried to make it a little bit more user friendly because really as Mark and I are heavily involved on a day to day basis, it can go ahead and get confusing and it can get cumbersome. From a Cornerstone standpoint, there's always a team, internal team here, to go ahead and make sure that we are providing support and we're giving you our guidance in regards to application testing and making sure that whatever we need to go ahead and do to ensure the design team understands what they might need to change to make sure that it's compliant.

Mark:

Yeah, no, that's a very good point to bring up that first of all, no one should think less of a judgment made by a very experienced fire code professional. All the tests that Mandi and I do, we're not burning your actual building anyway so everything is modeled to some extent. They're just using their experience to extend some of that modeling. When it comes to an IMP, it makes it pretty simple for them. It's a single component so maybe orientation may be size or thickness or something about the opening changes. Can you imagine that with five or six components that make up that same thing, that each of one of those are variables and they have to decide how each one of those variables that weather resistant barrier, the insulation, the cladding, how those all play against one another. I think the engineering judgements that Mandi seeks for application they're pretty straightforward. They're pretty easily done by these experienced folks.

Lexi:

Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining today and for educating us about this topic. I know that this is one that we get a lot of questions on and I think that you all did a really great job at explaining how this all works.

Mark:

Thank you.

Amanda:

Thank you.

 

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