Improving the fire safety of buildings with copper pipes

Improving the fire safety of buildings with copper pipes

Ever since the Grenfell tragedy and the subsequent inquiry into the fire, the topic of building fire safety has been high on the agenda. With the revelation that many homes, shops and offices are filled with flammable materials, people are becoming increasingly concerned and the government is now racing to remove combustible cladding from buildings across the UK.

But whilst a big focus has been placed on cladding since Grenfell, it’s also important to consider the fire resistance of other materials, such as pipes.

The importance of fire-resistant materials

Fire resistant materials play a key role in reducing fire risks and yet, many buildings in the UK are equipped with materials that offer little to no protection against fires.

A fire-resistant material is one that doesn’t burn easily. While no material is entirely fire-resistant, each material burns at a particular temperature and has therefore a certain degree of fire resistance.

In practice, fire-resistant materials are those able to withstand the temperature of the average building fire, which is around 1,100°C. The likes of concrete, steel, glass and copper can all be considered fire-resistant, because their ignition point exceeds this temperature. Most plastics, on the other hand, have an ignition temperature of just 350°C–500°C.

The risks of plastic piping

Plastic is often used for the pipes that supply water, heating and sprinkler systems in buildings. Plastic pipes have become a popular choice, particularly among plumbers and homeowners looking to conserve costs, with around 60% of water supply systems in new-build homes in the UK made of plastic.

However, a mounting body of evidence is now shedding light on the fire risks associated with plastics, which have been found to spread fires and release dangerous toxins when exposed to high temperatures.

Most plastics are flammable and will burn when exposed to an open flame, releasing gases and smoke. Plastics made up primarily by carbon and hydrogen – which includes most plastics used in construction – burn very well.

The fire resistance of a particular plastic varies based on its composition and the type of flame that it’s subjected to. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used widely for pipes, is less flammable than most other plastics but will still ignite in the event of a fire.

Other plastics like polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) will melt at temperatures of 130°C –160°C and catch fire at temperatures of 400°C or less. Due to the relatively low melting points of these materials, virtually all plastics must be specially treated with flame retardants before use.

Plastic pipe fumes

Plastic pipes have been found to release dangerous chemicals when exposed to high temperatures. These chemicals include chlorine dioxide, methyl chloride, and hydrogen chloride.

The harmful toxins released into the air by burning plastic have been linked to a vast number of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as certain cancers and birth defects. Nearly six years on from the Grenfell fire, it was revealed that up to a dozen firefighters involved in tackling the blaze had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

What’s more, a recent study published in Scientific Reports further elucidates the dangers of burning plastic faced by firefighters. The study, which surveyed over 10,000 serving firefighters in the UK, found that over 4% had received a cancer diagnosis, with the age-specific cancer rate up to 323% higher than that of the general population.

The body of research into the dangers of plastic fumes continues to grow, and the available data is already damning. Plastic building materials carry a real threat of severe health issues and even terminal illness when exposed to the temperature of a typical fire.

Copper credentials

With the mounting evidence of the fire dangers of plastic, natural materials such as copper offers the perfect alternative when it comes to reducing the risk of toxic fires.

As a solid material, copper is not considered flammable and only in powder form does the red metal present a serious risk to fire safety. This means that copper pipes can generally be relied upon to withstand a fire.

Copper’s natural fire resistance comes from its relatively high melting point of around 1,085°C, which exceeds the temperature of most building fires. It’s also considerably higher than the melting point of other building materials like plastic and aluminium.

In addition, copper has a lower thermal expansion coefficient, meaning it retains its shape and structure when exposed to high temperatures. During a fire, copper pipes will expand only marginally, reducing the need for repairs following the fire. Comparing copper to popular plastic building materials like PVC, PE and HDPE, copper can be trusted to resist ignition and retains its structural integrity in the event of a fire.

It’s time for the construction industry to prioritise the safety of buildings, rather than opting for the cheapest option meeting the minimum standards. Copper provides the toxic-free and non-combustible alternative that we need, making buildings safer now and for future generations.

Make the safe choice. Choose copper.

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