by Galynn Nordstrom
The bottom line on FR fabrics and fabric coatings may be simply that building codes require them, so architects and engineers will specify them, and fabricators will install them.
But not all FR is created equal, and customer demand for performance hinges on a number of factors.
Sattler North America Corp., based in Melville, N.Y., has brought to market FireMaster™ Plus, manufactured by parent company Sattler AG. FireMaster Plus is inherently flame-retardant and is also waterproof. President and CEO David Manning says that while customers don’t really specify whether they want a fabric that is inherently FR versus one that has an FR coating—“they want flame retardancy, period”—he feels that it’s always safer going with an inherently flame-retardant fabric. “There’s better uniformity. Our fibers and fabrics are FR to begin with—the topcoat combines both flame retardancy and water repellency, and it’s applied under pressure so that it permeates the fibers, too.”
Do FR coatings lend themselves to what is becoming a modular approach of adding performance by adding particular coatings? “Topical treatments may or may not be uniform,” he says. “There’s a company called American Flamecoat, for example, that does a good job of putting a topical coating on a special-order fabric [striped or patterned, etc.]. Certainly, coatings can give a manufacturer the flexibility to accomplish different things. But you have to be really careful with flammability—it’s a safety issue.”
According to Manning, specifying FR fabrics has less to do with indoor or outdoor use than it does simply with which building codes are involved with a particular end product. “Exterior FR is not universally required—some areas require it, some don’t,” says Manning. “And we’re mostly talking commercial installations here. Most residential awnings, for example, are not flame-retardant. Maybe indoor draperies aren’t either—I’m not sure. Mattresses, of course, have to be—but linens and blankets don’t. We’re asked for FR fabric when it’s a commercial application, and then it depends upon the city codes.”
The environmental aspects of FR coatings could be an aspect of these fabrics that customers do inquire about, since it can be a selling point in reaching their own customers. Sattler uses a series of six “baths” to finish its fabrics—and fresh water is used only in the last (and cleanest) one it hits. The rinse from the first (and dirtiest) wash goes into a purification system; what can be re-used is re-used, and the heat generated is used for successive baths. Coating is recycled throughout the process. “Everything is geared to the Oeko-Tex manufacturing process,” says Manning. “Not just the products—also the company itself is certified.”
He notes that most progressive companies in western Europe are ahead of the U.S. in FR requirements and certifications—and that Asia is often behind the U.S. in certification (safety and environmental concerns). Sattler is headquartered in Austria, and the company’s fabrics would meet FR requirements all over the world. In some countries, fabrics can be cheaper to produce, and environmental standards are often much lower—but safety standards might not be met with those fabrics. “You could pay for using those fabrics down the line—your customer might not be happy with the fabric, and your customer’s customer might not be happy with the end product.”
FR fabric isn’t a “differentiating” characteristic on its own for purchasers, says Manning; it simply builds the intrinsic value of the product. Fabric purchasers ask for FR, but there’s some education to be done in just how it’s accomplished, and what certifications the fabric holds. They need to ask not just whether a fabric has been certified FR but whether it actually is FR. In the event of a fire, the fabricator could be held liable, as well as the certifying organization.
“Often I’ll just pull out a cigarette lighter to demonstrate to them—and that’s a favorite test of fire inspectors also,” says Manning. “Most architects and engineers are well aware of building codes, but designers, for example, might not be. And sometimes building inspectors are going by rote. Code requirements vary so much, it can be confusing.”