Tom Fitzgerald, President of TMF Corporation, discusses a question he hears often

March 06, 2013 - "Industry Insight"

There are many advantages to both pharmaceutical and food handling businesses when plastic pallets are used instead of wood. The difference can be tremendous in cleanliness and cost savings due to an extended life of the pallets. An area that can cause apprehension in making the change is the goal or need of a company to meet fire protection standards.

At TMF Corporation we have addressed this by manufacturing our Protech Pallet that uses a combination of standard resins and adding fire resistant materials. We had them tested and rated by Factory Mutual Approvals so their classification for fire hazards are “equivalent to wood pallets”. This is how the fire retardant Protech Pallet is allowed to carry the FM Approved logo. I would like to take the time to explain what that means to you, me and to the fire protection establishment.

Plastic pallets are more often molded out of polyolefin materials like high density polyethylene or polypropylene. Materials such as these are much more flammable than wood that is used to make pallets. The plastics industry has argued with the fire protection establishment over the years that plastic pallets, while they burn hotter than wood, are much more difficult to ignite. To counter this, the fire protection people stand with the fact that most warehouse fires are due to arson.

Finally the fire protection establishment and the plastic pallet industry made some general agreements. The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) took the many documents that in any way referred to plastic pallets and included them in one document that created the NFPA13 “Installation of Sprinkler Systems”. This explains what warehouse owners need to do when using both plastic and wood pallets for storage within warehouses. Generally plastic pallets can be used in warehouse storage just the same as wood pallets depending on certain situations.

Warehouse sprinkling systems are now required and have been ever since the mid-nineties. Every warehouse must contain sprinklers designated as K-17 or higher. Testing was done with these sprinkling systems by using plastic pallets approving them for protection in a plastic pallet fire. These results were followed by allowing plastic pallets to be used in warehouses with a K-17 or higher sprinkler protection system.

Here, the question remained of whether a move to plastic pallets is practical for warehouses that were built before the mid-nineties. These challenges can be addressed in many different ways. One of these ways is to upgrade the sprinkler system to today’s code and that can be done in some cases by replacing existing sprinkler heads with K-17 heads. Other cases require the entire sprinkler system to be replaced, which in most cases is not practical at all.

The NFPA 13 clearly lays out the detailed rules of how idle plastic pallets need to be stored and how the class of each commodity changes when commodities are stored on plastic pallets. For more information on this subject, refer to NFPA 13, 2007 edition or contact us for a White Paper on this topic. When requirements and conditions for warehouse and pallet handling in NFPA 13 are too expensive to be considered practical, it’s time to look at the pallets themselves. The testing of plastic pallets is allowed by NFPA 13. If results are equal to or better from burning the plastic pallets, they can be protected by the same sprinkler scheme that is already approved for wood pallets. This rating is what is meant by “equivalent to wood pallets.”

Two companies have actually documented approval processes although there are a number of facilities that can do the burn tests. The two labs that have approval processes are Factory Mutual Approvals located in Norwood, MA and Underwriters Laboratories located in Chicago, IL.

Factory Mutual’s test is titled ANSI/FM4996. It involves testing idle plastic pallets as equivalent to wood pallets. TMF Corporation’s Fire Retardant Protech Pallet passed this test and earned its fire retardant rating. This is a very complex testing process which usually takes a minimum of six months to complete and the pallet components are monitored each year thereafter to maintain the “FM” designation.

The following criteria are monitored during actual fire test conditions for the fire text hazard classification. Values obtained during the fire tests are then compared to predetermined limits to evaluate if the pallet has met each requirement for fire hazard classification as equivalent to wood pallets.

  • Number of sprinkler operations
  • Maximum one minute average ceiling level gas temperature
  • Maximum five minute average ceiling level gas temperature
  • Maximum one minute average ceiling level steel temperature
  • Maximum five minute average ceiling level steel temperature
  • Extent of fire damage
  • Extent of melted plastic pooling

All of these criteria explain their own story of the fire. Number of sprinkler operations is useful in determining how fast a fire can be controlled and extinguished from automatic sprinkler protection. The extent of the fire damage is a measure of a fire’s potential for spreading horizontally, causing damage to adjacent products. The amount of melted plastic pooling is the measure of the potential of the fire to spread along the floor to products located across an aisle. Quality control tests are also conducted as an aid in watching the quality controls exercised in the resin and pallet manufacturing process.

The FM Approved rating is what separates and distinguishes the Protech Pallet from others and allows increasing warehouse operations to take in the benefits of having a high quality plastic pallet without incurring the cost of renovations, increased commodity class, or even special storage requirements. An investment in fire retardant plastic pallets is typically the best step in meeting fire protection goals.

Thomas M. Fitzgerald
TMF Corporation
850 West Chester Pike, Suite 303
Havertown, PA 19083
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