Jumping Through Plastic Hoops of Fire

Here's an eye-witness account of how fire-retardant plastic pallets burn.

I’ve always wanted to cover a really big inferno in Chicago. I’m told that story, however, has been done.

My tale focuses on a controlled fire. A blaze set on purpose — with purpose: to test the resistance of plastic pallets to fire.

First, a lesson in comparative literature. Most English-language fairy tales begin, “Once upon a time ...,” while most Russian fairy tales begin, “Someday there will be a land ...” This story is a bit of both.

Once upon a time, near the end of the last century, James A. Burns, chair of the catastrophic fire prevention task force, National Association of State Fire Marshals, launched a campaign to review and improve compliance with codes pertaining to the estimated 48 million plastic pallets in circulation in the U.S.

Note: No one is saying you can’t use plastic pallets. You do have to adhere to published codes and safety methods, particularly if the plastic pallets you select are not listed by Underwriters Laboratories and do not meet its 2335 classification for flammability. Existing codes provide an exemption for plastic pallets that present a hazard “equal to or less than that presented by idle wood pallets.”

In September, Larry Porter, manufacturing market manager at Buckhorn, invited me to view the burn-test of his company’s fire-retardant pallet. One thing Kevin Faltin of UL said — and keep this in mind — is that buying a pallet made of fire-retardant material is not the same as buying a fire-retardant pallet.

Based on how fast a fire spreads, temperature of steel beams overhead, sprinkler head deployment, and lots of other things, pallets either pass or fail.

As we entered the massive burn room, I noticed it had a smell reminiscent of my barbecue grill at home. Walls, ceiling, floor — virtually everything surrounding us — were smudged from years of sacrificial offerings. An army of more than 170 pallets stood bravely in a half-dozen 12-foot-high columns in the center of the room. As UL folks busied about their tasks, test procedures were reviewed and hoped-for results explained. I was to view the fire from a catbird’s seat — a sealed room 30 feet above the conflagration.

The fire was ignited. Flames started slowly, creeping up the chimney created by the pallets. Quickly, flames shot from the top of the stack, then through stringers and deck boards. Dense black smoke, looking as deadly and toxic as it was, curled and rolled across the ceiling so close I could reach out and touch it.

Suddenly, four K-11 sprinkler heads deployed. Water sprayed in all directions and knocked down the smoke and flames. When I lost visual contact with the fire, I swiveled to the bank of monitors overhead in our safe room. Engineers watched data stream in from sensors placed throughout the burn room. I was transfixed as spectral, infrared images, transmitted onto the screens, appeared as firemen walking through billowing smoke.

Constrained excitement meant things were going well. Engineers from UL were non-committal. They said, if the burn kicked off six or fewer sprinklers and held the fire in place for 30 minutes, it was a favorable scenario.

Postmortem. It was mid-afternoon before we re-entered the burn room. Firefighters had hosed the mountain of pallets, washed the floor and moved on. A lift truck separated columns of burned pallets so we could look inside. The first thing we noted was no puddle of plastic. In this test you can burn but you can’t run. Next, except for some disfigurement and serious charring on the faces of pallets nearest the ignition point, pallets were in remarkable condition.

And now the “Someday there will be a land ...” part of this tale. You can look at statistical data and tactical reports until your eyes burn. That’s for bean counters. Concentrate on objectives like return on investment and improved safety when choosing between wood and plastic. After you cut through the smoke and mirrors of advertising, I think you’ll find fire-retardant plastic pallets in your future.

Clyde E. Witt, executive editor, [email protected]

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