Burn, baby, burn: Touring UL’s testing inferno

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11/16/2007
Just back late last night from Underwriters Laboratories in Chicago where I got to don a blue hard hat and red protective glasses Wednesday for a tour of UL’s fire testing and research area, the facility is called “Building 11.” I was in Chicago for UL's Nov. 14-15 Smoke Characterization Seminar, (see the January issue of Security Systems News for more on the seminar) along with about 110 others—a handful of trade reporters, a bunch of fire service people, AHJs, engineers, manufacturers, academics and government types. The U.L. facility is cool. (It cost $15 m. to build in 1996.) It has four testing areas including a huge room--like the size of a high school gymnasium--where they do massive burn tests. The ceiling in this room weighs 200 tons and can be lowered to six feet high and raised up to 48 feet high. That makes it easier to clean up the mess from one test and set up the next. Tom Chapin, U.L.'s director of North American Fire and Security, said they can do major tests here every other day. They’ve torched 15,000 gallons of jet fuel and 3,000 pounds of toilet paper rolls. “You name it, we’ve probably burned it in the last 10 years,” Chapin said. Last year, they built a one-story house (with a $1m. U.S.F.A. grant) and burned it and rebuilt it 21 times. “We burned it down, then built in again and added sprinklers and burned it down again.” The burns are done for testing reasons and for research. Clients—like manufacturers or insurance companies—come here so that an independent third-party can determine how certain products and/or system designs will perform in a fire. The burn projects cost between $10K and $250K, depending on the scale and scope of the project. We got to see small-scale burn in one of the smaller testing areas, where they set up an enclosed room to look like an office, and started a fire in a trash can. A cross-section of the room was illuminated by a line of turquoise lights, and you could see the swirling smoke patterns-(reminded me of the psychodelic art at the Whitney Museum's "Summer of Love" exhibit in NYC last winter) which dissipated once ventilation was introduced.