Are Spray Fireproofing Contractors Certifiable?

Don Proctor

July 2006

The job of a spray-applied fireproofing contractor is not an easy one. The new International Building Code, challenges of retrofit work and a host of other issues can leave a contractor with plenty of headaches these days.

In many regions where retrofit work is peaking, a fireproofing contractor’s job can be a difficult one. After 9/11, state inspectors got tough on fireproofing standards. In some cases that has resulted in more retrofit work, points out Bill Kirven, vice president of Wisconsin-based Poellinger Inc., which is cashing in on the growing business in its region.

But retrofits are rarely as straightforward as new construction. One of the challenges is just finding the right portable pumping equipment that can squeeze through doorways and onto service elevators while holding up to the rigors of the job. After a major search, Poellinger tracked down California-based manufacturer J & M Service of Garden Grove that makes a pumper called the Magnum Pro Sprayer.

"It’s the only one we could find that holds up to hundreds and hundreds of bags of aggregate without ever replacing the stator,” Kirven says. "Aggregates will tear it (stator) out, leaving us with a pretty good-size job to take the stator out and put in a new one.”

He says the problem is not all manufacturers that claim their portable equipment is durable enough for spray fireproofing are telling the whole story. Breakdowns can be a real problem that cost money and lead to critical downtime. Poellinger is predominantly an ICI contractor that does hospitals, schools, churches and warehouses.

Chicago Ceiling & Partition LLC, a sister contractor to Florida-based Wal-Mark Contracting Group LLC, often uses a portable electric tommy (an electric version of a gasoline pump) in retrofit jobs because it fits into confined spaces, including standard building service elevators. The downside is that the pump has less power (torque) than traditional gasoline or diesel-powered pumping equipment, explains Aaron Gilbert, project manager of Chicago Ceiling & Partition. What’s more, the cost of converting a gasoline or diesel motor to an electric one for interior work can be pricey.

In the Chicago area, Gilbert says the retrofit industry isn’t being fueled by 9/11 tragedy. Retrofits are a cyclical business in the Windy City and right now the remodeling industry is booming.

Good News for Portable Pumpers

While there aren’t any significant changes in the spray material technology itself in recent years, newer products made with polystyrene beads convey easier than spray materials made with vermiculite or perlite because they are less abrasive. That’s good news for portable pumpers.

Gilbert says often the most challenging issue in the re-spray (retrofit) market is working in an office that is still fully operational. In such cases, fireproofing is often done at night under strict rules. "The owners can’t really remove the security systems, sprinklers, piping etc., so for the most part you are working around all kinds of equipment and things you don’t normally work around on new building construction. You have to cover up everything you are not doing with tarps and poly.”

In Houston, where downtown office remodeling work is going strong, existing fireproofing is often damaged or knocked down during renovations. While building inspectors may make every effort to ensure that it is repaired or replaced, there is no mechanism in place to ensure that the work meets code standards that include specific density and thickness, explains Raymond Daigle Jr., president of Fireproof Contractors Inc.

Daigle’s fireproofing work is not affected so much by 9/11 as it is by the International Building Code 2000. "We’re putting less spray fireproofing material in a building than we used to because of the IBC,” Daigle says.

The IBC has increased the use of sprinklers and materials such as acoustical fire-rated ceilings while reducing the need for fire- and smoke-resistant construction. These changes have created a heated debate in the fireproofing industry. "We’re lucky here in Chicago because the building code has stayed the same, but all the suburbs and central southern Illinois and the rest of the Midwest are beginning to adopt the IBC standard,” Gilbert says.

He points out that it is ironic in light of 9/11 that such legislation around fire safety would be considered acceptable: "If your electrical system and your backup water supply are knocked out by a fire, you have no protection at all. I think legislation is going to have to do an about-face.”

The move from the Uniform Building Code to the IBC strikes a nerve with many fire experts. Jerame Jarrell, estimator with the Portland, Ore., office of Performance Contracting Group, notes that three- to four-story office buildings that required two-hour spray-applied fireproofing under the UBC now don’t require any spray fireproofing. Fire marshals are outraged at the new code standards.

Another issue, adds Daigle, is that the IBC also permits acoustical ceilings as an alternative to spray-applied fireproofing. The problem is that during a building’s renovation these ceilings can be easily removed and replaced with non–fire-rated ceiling systems. "Hopefully, we’ll see a trend back the other way with codes,” Daigle says. "A lot of organizations, including fire marshals, are fighting the IBC code because they believe it is not the right direction to go.”

While large pumping equipment hasn’t changed much in the past decade or so, the fireproofing spray material has. An example is W.R. Grace & Co.’s new injection system, which contains a gypsum-based product with a quick-setting agent. "That technology has made things easier for us. Now we can spray once then pass over a second time sooner,” Daigle says, noting that in the past contractors had to wait a day or so before they could apply a second layer.

The drawback to the quick-setting material, which contains aluminum sulfate, is that it is difficult to clean equipment and the surroundings. "Most of the time now we have to poly the floor before we start a job because this products flash sets and sticks to everything,” Daigle says.

An SFRM Education

One of the big concerns in the spray-applied fireproofing industry is quality control. Jobs are difficult to inspect and monitor so sometimes subpar work goes unnoticed.

The National Fireproofing Contractors Association hopes to take a serious stab at this with the official launch of its certification program for spray fireproofing contractors soon. Almost three years in development, the sprayed fire-resistive material course covers proper design and procedures for the installation of spray fireproofing. The course also covers ASTM and NFCA standards relating to the work. Contractors will be required to pass a UL test to qualify for certification. The course is a day-and-a-half long.

Hubert Dudley, executive director of the NFCA, says until now there haven’t been any industry standards for spray-applied fireproofing: "There was a desire by enough contractors who wanted to ensure that they improve the quality of applications for us to set this course up.”

Dudley says that the issues surrounding the fireproofing at the World Trade Center added impetus to the drive for a national certification process. He says, "There have always been architects, engineers and contractors who have tended to play games with proper design techniques and procedures for spray-applied fireproofing to reduce the costs of buildings.”

UL procedures stipulate proper substitution rules for beams from one design to another in order to maintain a standard hourly fire rating for that design. "But architects and engineers over the years have made the wrong substitutions that have resulted in lower thickness of fireproofing,” he says. "They may be mistakes made unknowingly, or someone has intentionally played with the design.”

As of May 2006 about 20 contractors had completed the NFCA training program for SFRM contractors and have passed the UL test. Many contractors are developing a quality management system manual for use operating under the UL program.

Performance Contracting Group of Portland was one of the first contractors to go through the certification program. PCG’s Jarrell says while the course offers useful information even to the most experienced contractor, it may take some time to change the perception that the design and owner community has that fireproofing is nothing more than a "necessary evil.”

While the certification course is fully supported by the spray materials manufacturers, Dudley says, its success hinges upon widespread acceptance by contractors in the United States and Canada. "It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of situation because until we get enough contractors certified in any given market, it is going to be difficult for the architect to specify it when he needs three bids.” Dudley believes within a year there will be enough contractors certified to make the program a success.

Jarrell says a more realistic goal might be five years: "Ultimately, you are looking at dollars. If it is not being pushed by architects and in the specifications, then you are not going to see it gains acceptance that quickly, unfortunately.”

About the Author
Don Procter is a free-lance writer in Ontario, Canada.