Firestopping Telecommunication Cables: Problems or Profits?

In today’s sluggish economy, there is a segment of the low voltage industry that is booming. Security has become a priority in the United States. A critical aspect of security today is the focus on building security. In addition to enhancing security around the perimeter of buildings with cameras, badge readers and alarm systems, there are changes going on inside as well.

All commercial buildings ( if properly designed ) have security features built in to the building when it was constructed. Fire Rated Barriers have saved thousands of lives in the event of a fire. Fire rated barriers are classified by the amount of time it affords the occupants to safely leave the building. A 1 hour rated firewall in perfect condition will withstand the effects of a raging fire long enough for the people inside to get out with time to spare. In some cases, the fire is contained to within two fire rated barriers and the Fire Dept. can put it out in time to save the building. If we all lived in a perfect world, just think of all the potential lives saved and property damage avoided by every building’s “built in” security. BEWARE!

Fire rated barriers have been compromised (damaged) by low voltage installers for many years. The low voltage cabling industry is directly responsible for negating the value of a building’s most important security asset. Unregulated cable installers have made this a problem on a large scale. Now is the time to repair past mistakes and make amends.

Many low voltage installation contractors are being trained and have recognized the increased awareness of workplace security. Let’s face it. If you were in a burning building, wouldn’t you be praying that the building’s fire barriers were functional? All the major firestop manufacturers have some type of training available. Now is the time to start making an issue of fire rated barriers. Contractors should seek out training on firestopping, establish a Standard Operating Procedure for dealing with violations and get to work repairing the nation’s fire rated barriers. Once you are adequately trained, go after firestopping on the jobs you are bidding as well as with potential new customers. Hospitals and schools are more sensitive to firestopping issues than most commercial entities. Go after this untapped source of revenue. Here is how to do it:

  1. Find someone in your company willing and capable of addressing firestopping issues to customers. He/she will be your expert. Adopt a S. O. P. for retrofitting violations as well as new installations. Develop a presentation that includes “before and after” pictures, as well as pictures of new cable installations that have been firestopped properly.
  2. If you are bidding a cable installation, take digital images of the barriers you will penetrate and all violations as well. After presenting your cabling bid, ask for a consideration (as an addendum) of your S. O. P. for firestopping the new cables. Show images of what the barriers will look like when you are finished. Present the images of any violations and offer (as an addendum) to repair the damaged fire rated barriers. You have, in effect, limited your liability with respect to the previous damage as well as made a good impression with your potential client. ALSO you have made it common knowledge that persons responsible for maintaining the fire rated barriers know what condition they are in. Chances are your competitor will avoid these issues altogether. Many cable installation contractors have been awarded cabling jobs after firestopping issues are presented and solutions offered. These jobs are not awarded based on the “lowest bid”. If you have expertise, get paid for it.
  3. Advertise your expertise. There are very few competent firestopping specialists in the cabling industry. Low voltage contractors have damaged more fire rated barriers than any other craft. It may be best to start up a new division or even a separate company to handle your firestopping efforts. E-mail and/or send fliers to all your local hospitals and schools. Hospitals are inspected regularly by the Joint Accreditation Committee. ( JACHO) Local issues or excuses with reference to violations in fire rated barriers do not influence these Inspectors. If you were to contact the facilities manager about firestop solutions 30 to 60 days before JACHO is scheduled to show up, it may be easier for you to make an appointment to offer solutions.
  4. Call on firestop manufacturers for support. There may be other issues pertaining to firestopping that don’t involve cable penetrations. If you are up to the task, manufacturers are a great source of information about other firestopping issues. If you are there to retrofit cable violations, it may only take a moment to seal a crack or wall seam. Proceed carefully and know your limitations. Your solution must be a tested and approved System. Don’t offer any homemade solutions.
  5. Other sources for firestopping income would be schools, government buildings, nursing homes, shopping centers as well as pre-existing customers that know the condition of their firewalls. There is no need for a big sales pitch. This is a life safety issue. Once firestop violations are brought out in the open and the person or company responsible for ensuring the safety of a building’s occupants is apprised, they will take action, or they will sweep it under the rug and hope there is never a fire and loss of life. If loss of life occurs after being notified of the potential for disaster in the event of a fire, heads will roll if it is a matter of public record that they knew. Not many managers or building owners will ignore this potential liability…….
  6. Once you have been awarded a firestop job and selected a solution, seek the approval of the AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) for your project. You should find out who will be inspecting your work and get the solution pre-approved by them. Always remember that an Inspector will be looking for a tested system. Don’t deviate from the manufacturer’s assembly instructions and know your limitations.

For more information on starting a firestop division or getting Factory Firestop Training, call Mike Tobias @ Unique Fire Stop Products, Inc. 251-960-5018 or email him at [email protected]

Hospital Crisis: How We Got into the Firestopping Business

The Cable Installer Versus the Fire Wall

There are safety codes that must be followed when dealing with cable installations and physical fire barriers (firewalls). Fire stopping rated firewalls after cable installations should be taken seriously.

Several years ago, revised building codes required all regulated crafts to carefully penetrate and properly re-seal all horizontal and vertical firewalls to their original rating. Heating and cooling, drywall, carpentry, and other crafts had their own specifications to meet. Each contractor applied for a permit and upon completion each project was inspected for compliance. The building inspector assumed the responsibility of compliance upon his acceptance of the builder’s work. The building owner knew the building’s design features were functional if the inspector passed the work. Then the data, telecom and CATV cable installers showed up…

Today, these codes are more important than ever. An average business will deal with five or more cable installation companies that will penetrate the building’s firewalls. Most commercial buildings have connectivity that requires cabling from a ‘low voltage’ cable installer. This means that cable TV, intercom, security, computer network, and telephone installers can, in most states, with or without a business license, install low voltage cables. Without training or certification requirements, the chance of a firewall violation tends to increase. When the inspector returns, he is usually MAD as —-.

Most low voltage cable installers are ill-prepared to deal with firewall penetrations at the time they are encountered. For the sake of convenience, installers will look for a hole created by a previous installer and run the cable through. Then the installer hopes that the violation either won’t be noticed or will be graciously overlooked. When caught, the standard “but I only used a hole that was already there” line will only agitate an already frustrated fire marshal or inspector. Heads will roll if you can’t offer a solution.

Watch Your Back

Typically, if the installation works the cabling is forgotten and everyone is happy. However, it’s really in your best interest to do a little inspection behind the scenes. EIA-TIA 568 covers all of the specifications for attachments, bend radius and separation from EMI (as well as all other common specs), all of which are important. Like the foundation of a building, it’s what is behind the scene that matters most.

A combination of infractions could affect a computer network’s speed or cause interference, resulting in intermittent problems. Failure to properly reseal a firewall could be your biggest problem. Building inspectors and fire marshals will shut you down for the removal of cables found in violation of a firewall.

It all boils down to this: without licensing, permits, and inspections, violations will continue. I had been in the data cabling business for over 20 years. Our small company had twenty installation crews, and most of them were faced with firewalls every day. We learned about the importance of sleeving and sealing fire walls as a third party, in a showdown between an inspector and a hospital. The hospital had until ‘high noon’ on the third day to correct firewall violations made by their previous installation contractors. The cables in question happened to be the fiber optic backbone for the local area network. These cables ran the emergency room, intensive care, and hospital administration, to name just a few of the affected departments. Removal, sleeving, and reinstallation was not only impractical, but impossible if the hospital was to continue to function. Panic was setting in for us and the new contractor as well as for the hospital.

While the crisis team focused on the logistics of moving patients and acquiring temporary connections for the retrofit, we took a different approach. It was clear that the inspector wanted metallic conduit to be installed ‘through’ the wall and sealed at entry and exit. Our first reaction was to approach fire stop experts. We looked at pillows, putty, caulk, and other kinds of expensive solutions, all of which stopped short of our needs. What we needed was a ‘split sleeve’.

Homemade Solution: Split Sleeve Fire Stop Conduits

UNIQUE Split Sleeve Firestop System for retrofitting cable installation violationsRather than waste more time trying to find a ready-made solution, we decided to create our own. We took a two-inch aluminum conduit, threaded, cut it in half down its axis and placed it around the cables and through the firewall. A pair of slotted square washers was worked over the cables and caulked to each side of the firewall with the slots inverted 180 degrees from each other. A two-inch coupler was then slotted and screwed down the sleeve. The procedure was repeated for the other side of the firewall.

With a little caulk behind the washers and some putty stuffed in the split sleeve around the cable, the hospital’s firewall passed inspection. Once we had a metallic conduit installed around the cables, the inspector, the crisis team, and a very weary (but happy) hospital administration went home. We went back to the drawing board. A patent was initiated, and after a survey of inspectors, we were convinced that our Split Sleeve Firestop System would effectively solve the problem of critical cable removal due to the installer violating the barrier. A patent on the System was awarded and UL has it listed in its Fire Resistance Directory.

Cable Tray Penetrations: Problem Solved!

After a 25-year career in the cabling business, I had the exciting opportunity to develop some mechanical penetration systems for cable installers. During the development of these systems, I was continually amazed by some of the penetrations I encountered in commercials buildings, schools and hospitals. Almost always in evidence were fire stopping problems and issues around cable tray penetrations. Cable trays seemed to run through fire rated barriers with reckless abandon; the holes created by passing the tray through the wall or floor varying in size and shape. It was as if a different person planned and executed each and every hole — even in the same building, even on the same floor! There seemed to be no method to the madness.

For three years our company developed split sleeves for retrofitting penetration violations and penetrators for new cable installations. The systems are the result of the accumulation of decades’ worth of ideas and solutions from the cable installer’s perspective. Our products were well received by the cabling industry.

But what about those pesky cable tray penetrations? The issue troubled me, especially the question of why the builder or contractor made huge rectangular holes in the fire rated barriers. I imagined the panic when it came time to occupy the building and the contractor discovered that none of the cabling people had firestopped the cable tray. I imagined the anger of the building’s owner, having to pay extra to get these penetrations fire stopped and then accepting a mechanical method that is inadequate and will need to be retrofitted every time a new cable is pulled or removed from that cable tray.

Firestopping employs methods that are tested and classified by determining the amount of time before a fire will pass through a rated barrier. The cable tray industry has managed to sidestep fire stop issues by just saying and doing nothing. The average architect or engineer will spec a cable tray and leave it up to the contractor to install it with no reference to firestopping. It is a little known fact that there are no proactive cable tray penetrations for trays to go through a fire barrier.  In other words, the cable tray manufacturer did not go to UL or ETL and say “test this tray penetration for 2 hours, make the hole this size, and use these pillows, compressed this amount…” Instead, they left it to the end user to retrofit whatever they ended up with.

Those large holes will be a nightmare for the life of the building. Maintaining them will be expensive and time consuming. In many areas on the west coast, there are seismic considerations when a cable tray is passed through a fire wall. If a cable tray is rigidly routed through a fire barrier and an earthquake occurs, the seal will be broken and the firestop material will be dislodged. The result is that a fire will race through a wall that is specifically designed to stop fire.

Those in the building industry that are a party to this should STOP IT!

A simple and effective solution would be “Sleeve Systems.” where cable trays are stopped a few feet short of the fire barrier, a sleeve installed and the tray picked up again on the other side of the barrier.

Sleeve Systems are simply methods of containment for the expansion of the intumescent material. The sleeves can be fire stopped to match the rating of the barrier. A series of small holes is always easier to deal with than one large hole. Cable trays requiring a ground can run a ground wire through a one-inch sleeve to isolate it from the communications cables.
Firestop companies have contributed to the ambiguity involved with these penetrations for years. Their reps in the field will tell a builder/contractor to make the hole as big as they want, they will gladly sell you pillows, putty, caulk and chicken wire for the life of a building. Major firestop companies do cabling as a sideline; their mainstay is in the duct work, pipes, seals and wall to floor junctions. They are in the business to make money for their company. If the construction industry wants to throw money at them because we have no standards or even methods for dealing with cable tray penetrations, then so be it.

UNIQUE Fire Stop Future Proof Plates for cable tray penetrationsAny of you reading this article with any time out in the field know what I am talking about. Yes, it is too late to do anything about those barriers out there that have cable trays plowed through them. However, we can educate ourselves and be a part of the solution and not part of the problem. Acquire firestop training and establish a standard operating procedure for fire barrier penetration. If you are involved in the placement of cable tray, STOP IT. We have a system that overcomes all the pitfalls referenced in this technical finding: “Future Proof Plates” (FPP’s).

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Do I Need Packing Along with the Intumescent Putty?

Packing (eliminated for 1 or 2 hr. Systems)

Listings with 3-M, Hilti, Rectorseal and Nelsons all require a minimum of 1 inch of mineral wool batt insulation, packed tightly, into both ends of the sleeve and recessed for the amount of sealant to be used. The wool batt acts as a backing for the intumescent sealant that is used to seal both ends of the sleeve. Mineral wool batt insulation is a common fireproof material used to insulate hot water heaters, fireplace inserts, and heating ducts. The best sources for this packing material are the local commercial insulators in your area.  Note that some old-timers may call it rock wool. Our vertical and 4 hr. Systems do require this packing.

Intumescent Fill Material (putty)

All of our Sleeve Systems require the use of an intumescent caulk or putty to seal both ends of the sleeve. This material expands in the presence of heat/flame, suppressing the spread of a fire through the sleeve system penetration. The way a sleeve is packed and sealed is directly proportional to the amount of time a system will suppress a fire. For example, a 1 inch thickness of intumescent putty may be sufficient for a 1 or 2 hour rated penetration but a 3 or 4 hour application might require a 2 inch (or more) thickness in the ends of a sleeve system. Several fill material manufacturers have developed, tested, or engineered through penetration systems combining our sleeves and their fill material. All of our Firestop Systems have our UNIQUE intumescent putty included with the sleeve.

What do the UL Systems Acronyms Stand For?

The first letter of the listing designation identifies the type of penetrated fire-rated structure:

C for both floor and wall penetrations
F for floor penetrations only
W for wall penetrations only

The second letter designation identifies the construction type:

A for concrete floors less than or equal to 5 inches thick
B for concrete floors greater than 5 inches thick
C for framed floors
D for deck construction
J for concrete or masonry walls less than or equal to 8 inches thick
K for concrete or masonry walls greater than 8 inches thick
L for framed walls
M for bulkheads

Flame: The “F” rating is expressed in hours. This number indicates the specific length of time a barrier can withstand fire before being consumed or before permitting the passage of flame through an opening.

Temperature: The “T” rating is expressed in hours and indicates the length of time the temperature on the side of the penetration without fire does not exceed 325 F above the ambient temperature. This ensures the temperature on the side of the wall away from the flame does not reach the flash point of any materials on that side of the wall.

Smoke: The “L” rating is the amount of air (smoke) that can leak through a penetration, measured in cubic feet per minute. The test is administered at ambient temperature and at 400 F to determine the actual performance of fire-stopping materials at different temperatures.

Water: The “W” rating, established in 2004, indicates the fire-stopping material has passed the UL test for water tightness. The Class One requirements for water tightness include subjecting the material to a 3-foot water column for 72 hours, followed by a fire and hose stream test, conducted in accordance with ANSI/UL 1479. A Class Two listing requires the material to be resistant to a 20-foot water pressure head. Finally, a Class Three listing requires the material to be resistant to 57.54-foot water pressure head. According to one of its spokesmen, UL developed the new “W” rating to prevent water damage and mold-friendly moisture associated with through penetrations.