Big money and big efforts go into constructing commercial buildings like multi-family and mixed-use use real estate; especially here in Colorado! Tower cranes have been a staple of the Denver skyline for nearly a decade and they continue their dominance as I write this article today. Real estate developers have showered the Colorado market with billions of dollars of investments in hopes of capitalizing on the ever growing housing demand.
And sprinkled into the budget of each commercial construction budget is a small allocation of funds for firestopping installation.
While firestopping may be a very small portion of the overall building construction, if overlooked or done incorrectly, it can wreak havoc on budgets, schedules, and, more importantly, life safety of future building tenants.
In this article, we cover: What is firestopping? What is a firestop system? Common firestop installation mistakes. Where to find firestopping in the IBC. The difference between fire stopping and fire blocking.
What is Firestop?
A lot of thought and engineering go into designing a building with code-compliant fire rated assemblies and details.
Keeping it simple: inside any commercial building, there are fire resistance-rated walls and floors. These rated walls and floor, also called assemblies, will inevitably be cut, cored, poked, and breached to accommodate the building's utilities. [Think wires, pipes, vents, ducts, etc.] Any time somebody like plumber or electrician pokes a hole, the fire-rate assemblies are no longer resistant. In large multi-family and commercial construction projects, you now have hundreds, thousands, and maybe even millions of small openings that allow the free passage of smoke and flame; risking the lives of tenants trying to exit and the lives of first-responders trying to enter.
As a result, tested and approved firestopping products are needed to reestablish the fire resistance of these assemblies and construction joints. Fire caulks, sealants, paints, wraps, putties, collars, pillows, strips, sheets, backing, or a combination of these fire stop materials can be used.
The caveat: The use of one, or any combination, of these fire stop materials MUST be supported by a tested an approved fire stopping system; and ALL conditions must be met.
What is a Firestop System?
There are a varying number of manufacturers that make passive fire protection products for use in firestopping. But, before they can sell the products, the materials must undergo rigorous third-party testing and obtain special certification.
Basically, its such an important thing in life-safety that the government requires proof that these products will-do what they say they are going to do.
Firestop systems are the handbook for all-things firestopping. Installers must abide by them and inspectors hold us accountable to them; and there are thousands to choose from.
ANY deviation from a tested and approved system can mean one of the following:
- You should abort the current firestop method and search for a different system as the basis of design,
- If you can't find a system that matches the conditions you're facing, you can tear everything out and have it installed to match the original system spec.,
- Or you can submit for an Engineer's Judgement (EJ) on how she/he thinks it should be addressed and cross your fingers while you wait for the local building department to approve said EJ. - If it is not approved by the building department, see bullet point #2.
Most Common Fire-Stopping Installation Mistakes
- Not Following Tested & Approved Firestop Systems: Firestop systems are like those pesky directions that come with your kids' toys at Christmas: no matter how tempting it is to ignore them, it will save a lot of time and headache if you just open them up and follow the directions.
- Using Products That Aren't Third Party Tested: When the label on a tube of caulk has a red flame and uses the word "fire," it simply means they're doing a good job at branding and marketing; not necessarily that it meets the requirements of U.S. building codes. There are many products on the market that don't carry the inherent fire-resistance rating that you need. When searching for a fire stopping product, make sure it meets code and has been tested by a third-party entity like UL, Omega Point, FM, or Intertek.
- Mixing Different Firestop Brands: There are many great firestop product manufacturers, the "big three" being STI, Hilti, & 3M, and each one has spent millions of dollars designing and testing their own passive fire protection solutions to meet certain ratings. Products of different are, most likely, not tested together. Thus, they won't have the correct documentation to meet code.
- Poor Installation: More often than not, General Contractors and Developers will try to save a buck by delegating the firestop responsibilities to each individual mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (M.E.P.) trade. But [surprise] plumbers, electricians, and HVAC installers don't know about firestopping! - Nor should they be expected to. - Firestopping has become much more than "caulk-and-walk." Even the best products, when installed poorly, will not perform as intended.
- Annular Gap: This is the space between the penetrating material (e.g. pipes, conduit, cables, or cables treys) and the inside edge of the penetration opening. There are many restrictions on how big (or little) that space can be, depending on what is running through the hole. If the annular gap is larger or narrower than the tested system being used, than the fire stopping products will probably not work as it is intended; risking delayed schedules or, worse, life safety.
Where to Find Fire Stopping in the International Building Code?
Fire stopping is covered in Chapter 7 of the International Building Code (IBC), which is titled "Fire and Smoke Protection Features." Chapter 7 of the IBC provides requirements for the design and construction of building elements such as walls, floors, and roofs to resist the spread of fire and smoke. It includes provisions for fire resistance ratings, fire barriers, fire partitions, smoke barriers, and other fire protection features.
Section 714 of Chapter 7 specifically addresses fire stopping and draft stopping. This section provides requirements for the materials, installation, and inspection of fire stopping systems in walls, floors, and other building elements. It also addresses draft stopping requirements for vertical and horizontal penetrations, such as openings for pipes, conduits, and ducts.
Section 717 - Ducts and Transfer Openings: This section outlines the requirements for fire and smoke dampers, fire-resistance-rated HVAC ducts and shafts, and other mechanical systems that penetrate fire-resistance-rated assemblies.
Section 718 - Concealed Spaces: This section outlines the requirements for fireblocking and draftstopping to prevent the spread of fire and smoke within concealed spaces such as walls, floors, and ceilings.
These sections of the IBC provide guidance for architects, engineers, contractors, and code officials on the design, construction, and maintenance of firestopping systems in buildings. Compliance with these requirements helps ensure that buildings are safe and secure in the event of a fire.
Fire Stopping vs. Fire Blocking: Know the Difference
Fire stopping and fire blocking are two related but distinct terms used in building construction and fire protection.
Fire stopping refers to the process of creating barriers and seals within a building's structure to prevent the spread of fire and smoke from one area to another. Fire stopping systems are typically installed within penetrations, such as openings for pipes, ducts, or cables that pass through walls, floors, and ceilings. Fire stopping materials, such as firestop caulks or sealants, are used to fill the gaps around the penetrations and create a fire-resistance seal.
Fire blocking, on the other hand, refers to the process of creating barriers within concealed spaces such as walls, floors, and ceilings to prevent the spread of fire and smoke within those spaces. Fire blocking materials, such as lumber or sheathing, are used to fill the gaps between studs or joists and create a fire-resistance barrier.
The main difference between fire stopping and fire blocking is the location of the barriers. Fire stopping is used at penetrations and openings, while fire blocking is used within concealed spaces. Fire stopping is intended to prevent the spread of fire and smoke between separate areas of a building, while fire blocking is intended to prevent the spread of fire and smoke within a single area of a building.
Both fire stopping and fire blocking are critical components of building fire protection systems and are typically required by building codes and regulations to ensure the safety of building occupants in the event of a fire.