In the end, the objects of this exercise are to create better plastic pallets and informed consumers. It is not, however, going to be quick and easy. The controversy surrounding the potential (alleged?) fire hazard generated by plastic pallets will continue to smolder for a while.
The Fire Test Task Group of the Reusable Plastic Container and Pallet Association (RPCPA) has released its report, an initiative it began in 2001 with TVA Fire & Life Safety Inc. (www.tvafire- safety.com). With the release of this report, the air is beginning to clear for end users and, hopefully, for fire marshals.
First, some backgrounder on this important issue. Back in 2001, six members of the RPCPA (a product section of the Material Handling Industry) funded and joined with TVA and Underwriter’s Laboratories Inc. to test plastic pallets. Common thinking among pallet users and fire marshals at the time was that plastic pallets created a greater fire hazard potential than did pallets of other material.
Also, there was a proposal before the National Fire Protection Association seeking to increase protection for in-use plastic pallets — meaning a higher risk classification for plastic pallets, thus making them financially less attractive than pallets constructed of other material.
Two full-scale fire tests were conducted using the K11.2 sprinkler to determine if a no-class upgrade was possible — meaning no increase in insurance premiums. The tests results were compared with previous tests using K5.6 sprinklers and K11.2 sprinklers and wood pallets.
The larger K17 sprinkler had been accepted by the NFPA 13 Technical Committee as capable of protecting plastic pallets the same as wood pallets based on previously conducted tests.
You can download a copy of the RPCPA report from www.mhia.org/psc/pdf/rcpa/FireTestingSummaryReport.PDF. Here are a few highlights from the report. The pallet production processes, in this case thermoforming, injection molding and structural foam, showed some differences in the burnability of some pallets, however no direct comparisons were made. Therefore, no specific conclusions can be reached. In general, however, lighter-weight, non-rackable thermoformed pallets tend to collapse early [in the burning process] and have lower ranking than heavier pallets. Injection molded pallets tend to be more dense, stay in place longer, are heavier and in general have higher ranking than structural foam. As the committee points out, these are observations rather than conclusions, since the weight of a pallet produced in each production process can vary substantially.
Another observation was that reinforced pallets, whether containing steel or fiberglass reinforcement rods, tended to stay in place longer, allowing more plastic to burn and create higher rankings than non-reinforced pallets.
Stacks of idle pallets have been a major concern with fire marshals. In previous idle-pallet tests, it was shown that open-deck pallets burned faster than solid deck models. In the in-use tests, other variables were more prominent, and the differences were not clear. With solid, flat-bottomed wood pallets, an increase of 20 percent to the density is mandated by the NFPA storage standards. The reason is, with the ease of fire spread and more commodity burning on the pallet, it’s more difficult for the sprinklers to control the fire.
Mark Parsons, Linpac Materials Handling, was on the RPCPA task group. He says fire becomes an issue for his customers when their casualty insurers question the use of plastic. "This [the tests and report] are a clarification and education process because many people don’t know what the requirements are," says Parsons. "And when they don’t understand the requirements, they always assume the worst."
An unstated result of the work of the RPCPA Fire Test Task Group, is that it demonstrates how working together for the common good benefits the customer.
Clyde E. Witt, executive editor [email protected]