Flame-resistant fabrics: Examine your options
Offer better customer service with information on the latest in FR qualities and regulations.
Specialty Fabrics Review | April 2010
By Holly O’Dell
In many environments today, fire retardancy and flame resistance (FR) qualities are required for fabrics; in other cases, it is a desirable quality, at the least. For commercial and hospitality applications—for example, an awning used on an office building or an exhibit hall banner—FR ratings are essential. Fortunately, end product manufacturers (EPMs) have access to an increasing variety of textiles and finishing treatments to ensure that the application will be flame resistant.
Fire retardant options
Fabric manufacturers may offer a product that has FR characteristics integrated into the fabric, an FR coating applied in their own facilities, or both. “We like to use fabric that is inherently FR,” says Mark Sonneborn, founder of Sunborn Shading Solutions, Jacksonville, Fla., which supplies products to the hospitality and health care industries. “There’s a wide array of these types of fabrics out there. The sky really is the limit as far as pattern and color.”
Inherent FR fabrics often have a polyester base. Korea-based Alkenz, a manufacturer of vinyl-coated polyesters used for interior window treatments, uses an FR formula that’s put in the vinyl jacket, which is then extruded to the polyester yarn. “Once the fabric is forged and welded, it’s already fire resistant,” explains Gene Demestre of Alkenz USA.
“Customers have many solutions such as salt-based dips, FR combination finish packages, textiles made with inherently FR yarns and coatings that withstand a variety of industry fire standards,” says Stephen Bodnar, director of marketing for Duro Textiles LLC of Fall River, Mass., which offers a range of FR fabrics and solutions that have been customized for military and commercial applications.
Five years ago, Bradmill Outdoor Fabrics of Victoria, Australia, developed FireFoil awning fabric for the North American market, a plain weave blend of 52 percent polyester and 48 percent FR cotton, to which Bradmill applies an FR finish.
“At our manufacturing facility, we use a temperature-controlled dryer that allows the chemicals to bond to the surface,” explains Daryl Harper, general manager of Bradmill Outdoor USA. Because the [FR finish] bonds to the actual surface of the fabric, the product is much stronger, lasting through rain, UV rays and “all the other problems that go with outdoor fabrics,” Harper says. “Plus, you are getting longer-term benefits from properly treated fabrics within a controlled environment.”
Darlington Fabrics of Westerly, R.I., recently introduced a heavyweight stretch warp knit (90 percent cotton, 10 percent spandex) textile to meet the FR needs of the flag, banner and display industries. The manufacturer applies a post-treatment finish to make them fire retardant and is working on the next generation of the product, where phosphorous is added to the yarn at spinning to give it the FR quality. (Varying degrees of phosphorous will greatly affect the effectiveness and performance of the yarn.) Many new fibers have been introduced to the market, says Tony Latrechiano, business development manager for Darlington Fabrics, but not all pass testing for FR performance.
In some instances, an aftermarket FR treatment is required. Resistflame Finishing Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio, specializes in the manufacture and application of FR coatings and takes a holistic approach to its finishing services. One of its products, Advantage FR, was designed to work on fabrics that typically have been difficult to coat, such as polyolefins, nylon and acrylic.
“We are formulators of the materials that we use,” says Tom Applegate, president of Resistflame Finishing. “We design our chemicals for specific applications, along with test methods, with the intent of being able to use them over a wide range of fabric compositions and designs.”
FR coatings have both advantages and disadvantages. “A coated fabric is typically chosen for its enhanced ability to stop flame propagation and/or the need for a waterproof fabric,” Bodnar says. “The downside to coated fabrics is increased overall fabric weight and a reduction in the drape or hand of the fabric.”
FR capabilities and challenges
This question often arises with manufacturers, particularly when it comes to aftermarket treatments. How is the fabric going to be affected? “If a fabric is going to be used on an outdoor installation, for instance, fabricators need to make sure the treatment is going to last,” says Juli Case, information and technical services manager for IFAI, and a member of the California State Fire Marshall (CSFM) flammability advisory committee.
Often, Case says, an aftermarket treatment will void a fabric’s warranty. The subject of fabric warranties, however, can be a tricky one. “It depends on many variables, such as what the other desired physical properties are, how the fabric will be used and what the fabric care instructions are,” Bodnar says. “Typically, FR coatings are very stable and withstand washing and other outside environmental exposure. As with any coating, the weight of the fabric will increase, and the hand may be altered.”
When in doubt, EPMs should check with the fabric’s manufacturer to determine consequences of adding an FR treatment—or any other coating. The same rule applies to printing. Many inherent FR fabrics offer the same digital or screen printing capabilities available in non-FR fabrics, but those that are treated may present some obstacles.
“We print on almost all of our FR fabrics,” says Steve Mevius, whose company, Polar Shades Sun Control of Henderson, Nev., uses about 99 percent inherent FR fabrics for its awning and shade solutions. “The end result is unbelievable. It almost looks like a mural.”
Despite some challenges, an FR treatment—whether it’s applied before or after an EPM purchases the fabric—also can offer multiple functions. ResistFlame Finishing, for example, has blended FR and stain protection into one process for its customers. “A single-pass application puts less stress on the fabric,” Applegate says. “You are not wetting, heating or drying it twice, which can impact the physical properties of a fabric, such as its tensile strength.”
ResistFlame also has been able to use its FR products as a blackout finish on the back of draperies or other window treatment materials. “From an economic standpoint, [this process] cuts down on needing to have another line or row of drapery fabricated,” Applegate says.
Additionally, Duro Textiles offers off-the-shelf and custom-based product solutions such as antibacterial, antifungal, wicking, breathability, and soil and liquid resistance that can be combined with the manufacturer’s FR offerings. “By combining these technologies—sometimes in a single step—the effective cost of the final product is often reduced,” Bodnar notes. “The control of the product’s desired properties is often greatly improved by also processing these fabrics through one manufacturer who knows the entire process and chemical recipe.”
Anticipating customer questions
Before purchasing pretreated FR fabrics or applying an aftermarket coating to them, EPMs should be prepared with answers to some basic questions. “They need to know how the fabric is going to be used and what they want to achieve,” Applegate notes. “We’d rather see a client use an FR back coating when feasible because it will give them a more durable and stable product in the long run.”
“Fabricators should ask for products that will pass the test for the application they are being used for,” Latrechiano suggests. “For example, the testing requirements for mattresses are different from children’s sleepwear, industrial workwear or curtain fabrics. If the product is going to be routinely laundered or exposed to direct light, fabric that is made from a fire-retardant fiber is required because FR finishes are not permanent.”
A cursory knowledge of FR regulations also helps, but sometimes that can be difficult. “Unfortunately, there are so many fire standards and regulations currently being used around the globe that it often makes it difficult for the customer to know what he or she needs,” says Bodnar. Duro works closely with its clients to find out what the customer really requires. “This helps minimize the potential risk of ordering and processing a product that, in the end, does not meet the customer’s true needs,” he says.
Whether they choose to use the inherent FR or coated fabric, EPMs have a growing portfolio of FR solutions at their disposal. What’s more, certain FR finishes can be combined with other treatments, such as antibacterial coating, for a better-performing fabric. In the end, EPMs should work closely with their fabric suppliers to produce an end product that features all the necessary fire retardant and flame resistance characteristics while ensuring durability, quality and effectiveness.