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Flammability codes: the basics

Features | May 8, 2015 | By:

Fire, Govmark
NFPA 701 establishes test methods to assess the propagation of flame of various textiles and films under specified fire test conditions. There are two tests; this one illustrates Test Method 2, required for vinyl-coated fabric blackout linings. Photo: Govmark

Knowing what to ask and why can help fabricators sort out the complexities of FR codes and standards.

Complying with flammability and fire resistance codes can be challenging for fabricators in meeting with the applicable codes to properly advise their clients.

An FR rating measures the flammability of a fabric when exposed to specific sources of flame. FR certification is basically the assurance via a number of North American safety tests that these fabrics pass certain criteria, making them safe to utilize in a variety of environments.

“Under the umbrella of the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI), this embodies a number of our market segments, including FGA [Fabric Graphics Association] and TRD [Tent Rental Division]. FR is not only a must for all interior fabric applications, such as retail, trade show, décor and wall coverings, but also required in many exterior architectural applications, such as tents, awnings and structures,” says Eric Tischer, president of Verseidag Seemee US Inc., Randolph, N.J.

Salvadore Messina, CEO of Govmark Testing Services Inc., a Farmingdale, N.Y., testing agency, says each individual product has a separate code to comply with and some products need to comply with more than one code, which underscores the importance of knowing these codes.

“We counsel our clients to try to limit the term FR to the actual test that the product undergoes; for example, ‘this tent material meets CPAI 84 for walls and tops; this industrial curtain material meets NFPA 701 TM 2,’” he says.

Inherently FR vs. coated

Fabrics can be inherently flame retardant or flame retardant through treatments or coatings. Inherently FR fabrics utilize fibers that possess flame retardancy without the need for post treatments, such as Trevira® or Avora® polyesters. Inherently flame-retardant fabrics also keep their FR for the life of the fabric, whereas treated or coated FR fabrics will see a reduction over time, mainly due to washing or dry cleaning.

“With that said, many treated FR fabrics aren’t cleaned like drapery in the fabric print market, and therefore can and will keep their FR for longer than the end user requires the use of the fabric,” says Tischer. “Treated and/or coated fabrics offer the needed fire retardancy to pass tests such as NFPA.”

Flammability and fire testing

FR testing is usually consistent on a nationwide basis. One of the main building codes is published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and covers a lot of products. The other main segments to comply with fire tests are related to aircraft, passenger rail cars and passenger vessels, says Messina.

In addition, some locales have their own particular tests, notably California, Boston and New York City. In California the CA Title 19 is utilized, and it is quickly becoming the state’s Fire Marshal’s mainstay (see sidebar). New York City requires certification that fabrics meet requirements outlined in Title 27 of NFPA 701, while Boston requires that the end users get their fabrics approved prior to use.

Interior and exterior

Tischer says the vast majority of fabric suppliers within IFAI have their products tested through outside test facilities and can provide the test data and certificates per product. This is highly recommended and typically a requirement by the state fire marshal to have posted with interior applications such as retail and trade shows.

“While NFPA 701 is the standard for our industry,” he adds, “there are a number of other tests that are very important, specifically the ASTM 84. This is the preferred certification for interior wallcoverings and is needed when considering ‘permanent’ fabrics for interior walls. This is a more focused test specific to this application.”

Messina points out that the ASTM 84 test standard does not contain any pass/fail criteria. The building code lists different classes that may be assigned based on the values obtained by the testing. “Most wall coverings in public buildings need a Class A rating. This is a flame spread of 25 or less and smoke developed of 45 or less. The New York City building code limits smoke development maximums of 25 to 100,” explains Messina.

Exterior applications that utilize architectural fabrics require FR certification, just as digitally printed banners, awnings, tents and structures require it. Although the fabrics are considered to be outside of a building or space, they’re typically used for shelter or considered closed enclosures. These applications require the same types of fire retardant guidelines as interior fabrics because of the close contact with humans, says Tischer.

“With regards to exterior printable fabrics such as banners, these may not have to be fire retardant. In many instances if the banner is away from people, such as billboards, FR is not required. As a fabric supplier, we still manufacture a majority of printable fabrics with FR to ensure the highest levels of fire and personal safety.”

Most products for exterior applications are acceptable based on NFPA 701, CPAI 84 or California Title 19, says Messina. Some outdoor screening materials are mandated to be tested by ASTM E 84.

European vs. North American

Every country has its specific FR test or certification. NFPA is seen as the North American governing body on this; in Europe, countries typically utilize the B2 and M1 certifications for FR requirements, says Tischer.

Messina says it’s possible to do a North American test, such as an ASTM or an NFPA procedure, for an indication of how a product would perform in an international test, such as those listed by ISO (International Standards Organization).

The same holds true in reverse. “The North American tests and the international tests (ISO) are usually so different that a user must test to both standards to properly certify a product,” says Messina.

CAL FIRE Supervising Deputy State Fire Marshal James Parsegian says since current California regulations outline specific requirements by which tents and decorative fabrics and materials are registered, the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) does not have the authority to recognize other standards. Because of this, North American, ROW (i.e., in Europe) and others’ codes and standards are not considered or recognized by OSFM.

Ask your supplier

For the most part, fire marshals are content with receiving a test report from a recognized lab, says Messina. The one peculiarity Govmark has seen over the years is that many fire marshals do not seem to insist on current reports within the past 12 months.

One exception to test report acceptance Govmark is aware of is the Miami Fire Department, which will take pieces of material and conduct onsite testing, even though a valid laboratory test report is available.

The majority of fabric applications that IFAI members require is covered under the NFPA 701 certification, the standard in North America, says Tischer. Within this, various subtests can offer more specialized criteria. The specific FR test certification required depends in large part on the specific application being supplied. Fabric suppliers can provide answers to these questions.

Barb Ernster is a freelance writer based in Fridley, Minn.

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