Upholstered furniture can be a serious
A team of over 50 researchers from 11 European organisations studied
the burning behaviour of upholstered furniture. Using standard tests,
they developed models that could predict the conditions of a room
fire started from furniture made from given materials. This will
allow manufacturers to design safer furniture in the future. The
project partners performed over 1,500 tests and this information
is now available in a database.
A small flame in upholstered furniture can turn into a disastrous fire in only a few minutes. There are very few other items in the home that have the potential to cause this sort of damage so quickly. In fact, statistics show that the major cause of fire casualties is burning upholstered furniture. In nearly half of these fires, a burning cigarette starts it off. The fire first smoulders and burning is hidden from view. It then visibly begins to flame. By this point the fire is growing so quickly that people in the building may not have time to escape.
Still, until recently, scientists knew very little about the way these products burn. Very few procedures were available to assess the hazards reliably. Without these methods, it is very difficult to implement standards across European and national legislation.
To improve the situation, 11 fire research laboratories from eight European countries put their heads together to investigate methods to measure the burning behaviour of upholstered furniture. Over two years, more than 50 scientists contributed their skills to the Combustion Behaviour of Upholstered Furniture - or CBUF - research programme.
During this time, they developed both large- and small-scale test methods to achieve this, together with appropriate procedures for assessing the hazard to people exposed to upholstered furniture fires in rooms. In particular, the project partners produced fire test procedures and mathematical fire models that predict important aspects of a room fire atmosphere based on small-scale tests on furniture materials.
Predicting the hazard
The team first used "room tests" to gain data on the burning conditions of upholstered furniture in a room. Meanwhile, they also used a test called the Furniture Calorimeter to test full-scale pieces of furniture. For small-scale testing of furniture components, such as foam padding, liners and material, they employed another test, called the Cone Calorimeter. At the beginning of the project, about 60 European laboratories already used the Cone Calorimeter test, which is an International Standard. The precision of these tests had already been verified in earlier studies. This project therefore focussed on quality assured test protocols that would be suitable and robust enough for routine testing of upholstered furniture.
The partners fed the results from the large-scale test into two models to predict the conditions occurring in two "burning room" scenarios. They also fed the data from small-scale tests into a model and predicted the results of the large-scale test. In all, they worked to validate three different furniture fire models. A new model to predict the behaviour of composite materials from the Cone Calorimeter proved to be very successful.
Designing safer furniture
These furniture fire models together with design criteria for fire safe furniture provide powerful tools for estimating fire hazards and for constructing fire safe furniture. With results from over 1,500 material and furniture fire tests, the project team created a database designed specially for fire data. It contains test data on heat release rate, temperature, heat flux, smoke density and concentrations of gas species such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen chloride, hydrogen bromide and NOx.
The idea was not to classify large numbers of furniture items according to their burning behaviour. Rather, the partners tested a series of pieces of furniture on the market in Europe as well as "custom made" furniture to study the effects of materials, constructions, ventilation conditions and so on. They studied furniture and materials with very rapid fire development as well as those that do not burn well. Thus the tests and the fire models were based on a wide and comprehensive spectrum of experimental data. A key result was that high performance foams and interliners and good fabrics were found to be very successful in controlling burning behaviour.
The collection of test methods and modelling can be viewed as a tool kit. The user can select different components of this tool kit depending on the situation. Potential exists to incorporate this tool kit into a computer program with a user friendly interface which could be run on a PC. This software could be operated by a furniture manufacturer who wants to design a new chair or bed, for example. He or she would select an appropriate style from the database and input additional design parameters and details of the materials. The program would then give an assessment as to whether the design would pass or fail the required fire criteria.
A large audience from the furniture industry and its suppliers, regulatory authorities and consumer groups attended a one-day conference in Brussels to find out more about the project's results. The final report has been published by the laboratories who carried out the research in the form of a book. They hope that the test methods developed in the project will eventually be the basis of appropriate standards that will facilitate trade in the EU and will make an important step towards increased fire safety.