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Repelling Fire

Flame Retardant Fabric

By Melissa Donovan

With the growing usage of fabric in the graphic arts, safety issues loom and manufacturers strive to resolve them. One such challenge is fire protection. Textiles labeled as flame retardant (FR) reassure end users and their customers that signage, décor, or apparel will not harm anyone if circumstances arise.


Both coated fabrics and those with natural fibers featuring a high repellency to fire are options to consider. Many vendors offer both, but textiles coated with chemicals are popular due to their cost-effectiveness. Both science and history mix into the evolution of FR fabrics, proving there is more to this technology than meets the eye.


A Timeline

FR fabrics date back to the prehistoric era. According to Mike Richardson, director of sales/marketing – print media, Aurora Specialty Textiles Group, Inc., the first of their kind appeared before 100 B.C. Consisted of asbestos, these fabrics were placed directly into a fire to be cleaned. Thousands of years later, Nicholas Sabbatini, in 1638, recommended a clay and gypsum combination be applied to painted canvas theater props after a series of fires ravaged local theaters.


Fast forward to the 1900s, where increasing restrictions on public venues forced manufacturers to rethink FR fabrics. As curtains and other textile-based décor became staples in restaurants, hotels, shopping areas, and night clubs, many proprietors realized the necessity of flame-repellant fabrics. Tragedies such as a fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club, in Southgate, KY, on May 28, 1977, where 165 people died and over 200 injured, as pointed out by James Gay, director of marketing, Fisher Textiles, prove this concern.


The solution, fabric that ignited slower, such as wool—due its weight. Then manufactured permanent FR polyester yarns came on the scene. “These permanent yarns had drawbacks in that they were expensive, had generally high shrinkage rates, and yellowed at lower finishing temperatures,” admits Jeff Sanders, digital fabric sales manager, Pacific Coast Fabrics (PCF).


Around 2005, cost-effective coatings were developed to reduce most fabric’s flammability, making it nearly non-combustible.


Today’s extended use of fabric in the promotional space creates more opportunity for fire hazard concerns. Especially with the growing appreciation for digitally printed fabrics, which can be found throughout the graphic arts and translated into the fashion and home décor industries as well. These mediums must also be FR.


“Synthetic media has replaced paper advertising in the last 25 years for several reasons. It is superior to paper with resistance to water, heat, tear, and flame. Because media is often illuminated, and attached to a room or building, fire and heat resistance should be a concern,” explains Michael DeSouto, technical manager, sign and digital products, Cooley Group.


Naturally Resistant Fabrics

Certain fibers are more naturally resistant to fire as opposed to others. This is associated with their Limited Oxygen Index (LOI). The lower the LOI, the more flammable a fiber is. Specialty fibers such as Fluorocarbon, Melamine, Meta-aramid, and Para-aramid feature LOIs of 95, 32, 30, and 25 to 28, respectively.


Some synthetic fibers are extremely FR, for example modacrylic. They melt rather than flame. Although, the substance that results from the act of melting can still be harmful due to its high temperature. Other synthetics such as Trevira and Avora, are considered permanently FR.


Tiffany Guard, product manager, inkjet media, Neschen Americas, explains that Trevira’s CS grade polyester fiber integrates FR chemistry into the molecules of the fibers through the use of copolymer chemistry. This particular type of fiber is intrinsically FR.


“The ignition and burn factors are affected by the weight and weave of the fabric. Lightweight, loose weave fabric burns quicker than heavier fabrics with a tight weave. In addition, flammability is also affected by the fabric’s surface texture, with napped fabric—such as velvet and velour—igniting easier than fabric with a smooth surface,” explains Sanders.


The benefits of using inherently FR fabric and/or fabric with FR built into the ink receptive coating is that they will retain their characteristics throughout the life of the product. Whereas treated FR fabric diminishes overtime mainly due to cleaning processes, as pointed out by Eric Tischer, director of textiles and specialty products, Verseidag Seemee US.


Coating Chemicals

Coating a fabric to repel fire is done during the washing and drying process or in post treatment. “The fire retardant chemicals work by interfering with the basic requirements for combustion,” says DeSouto.


Although many vendors were interviewed on the topic, few shared what is used to protect their products. Citing the type of chemical, amount applied, and method of application as proprietary and typically not revealed to the general public.


Richardson shares that the chemicals may be halogented or phosphated, but this depends on the type of fabric, construction, end use, and application.


“Government regulation largely limits coating chemistries to less- or non-toxic formulations,” explains Guard. FR coatings with Antimony or halogens are considered hazardous due to their composition or combustion by products. In extreme cases, polymers like Kevlar or Nomex—FR due to their chemical structure—are used.


Affect on Quality

When a coated fabric is printed, the general appearance of the presumed final outcome may change. Vendors say their products work with any ink in the digital print space and should not be affected when their proprietary FR coatings are used.


“Regarding FR fabric and those treated with FR chemicals, there is no adverse effect with any ink and no adverse effect with any kind of print quality,” adds Gay.


“Our Ferrari Group products work with solvent, eco-solvent plus, UV, latex, and silkscreen inks,” shares Robert B. McGilvray Jr., GM, Ferrari Textiles Corp., member of Ferrari Groupe.


According to Guard, it depends on how and when the FR coating is applied. For example, FR coatings on transfer dye-sublimation (dye-sub) fabric slightly impact the ink transfer rate during sublimation because they inhibit the transfer of the ink.


While Richardson admits print quality isn’t necessarily affected, he says that the coatings do influence the stiffness of the fabric.


Sanders says coatings actually improve the material, especially in terms of color definition and brilliance. But, with the improved printing definition and brilliance comes a reduction of the print-through quality on the backside of flag fabrics. A benefit of PCF’s Flame Repel treatments is an improvement in anti-static behavior.


Certification Rules             

There is no universal certification or test to ensure a textile is qualified as FR. Countries, states, and even cities have their own criteria. Although many do enact similar testing procedures.


Popular certifications include the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA’s) 701 Standard Method of Fire Tests for Flame Propagation of Textiles and Films. Established in 1896, the international non-profit organization, offered three different versions of this test since 1999. The NFPA’s latest, in 2010, includes testing for residual flame and weight loss; whereas the version prior in 2004 included testing of the after flame and char length.


Also well known in the U.S. is the State of California Office of the State Fire Marshal. For a fabric to be FR certified in CA, it must pass California Title 19, Section 1237.1 Small Scale. This requires the fabric to have an after flame time of less than two seconds and a char length of less than six inches.


Per FR-One, a company committed to creating a worldwide standard, the German DIN 4102 (B1) is commonly known throughout Europe. A fabric can be classified as B1 if it fulfills the requirements of a B2 test, where a burner flame is applied to the material for 15 seconds, and a fire shaft test. The French P92 503-507 (M1), popular in France, outlines a similar standard.


Other organizations that offer FR testing include Underwriter Laboratories, which offers product safety certification and compliance solutions. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International is a developmental organization that voluntarily creates standards that address standardization needs. For example, the ASTM E84-10 Standard Test Method for Surface Burning Characteristics of Building Materials tests flame spread and smoke density. When a fabric passes the test, it qualifies for Uniform Building Code (UBC) Classification.


The NFPA 701 and California Title 19 are two of the most well-known certifications in the U.S. Most FR textiles should at least pass these tests.

Product Options

Vendors included in this piece share the certifications their fabrics fall under and discuss popular product lines.


All FR treated fabric in Aurora’s Northern Lights Printable Textiles line pass the NFPA 701 small scale test. The popular Act II FR and RePlay2 FR fall under this category.


Cooley manufactures a wide variety of printable fabric used in sign, awning, banner, billboard, building wrap, and mesh applications. Most of these meet NFPA 701 and California Title 19 requirements.


DHJ International/Decoprint was one of the first companies to develop FR blockout fabric on polyester textiles for the hotel business. The company’s PEARL product line falls under the French P92 503-507 (M1) standard.


Ferrari Group makes FR sign product composites of woven high-tenacity Tersuisse polyester and coatings of PVC with an integral FR component. The majority of Ferrari’s sign products are FR rated. The company’s Decolit, Expolit, and Decomesh lines target department store, museum, stadium, studio, and long-term exhibitors for pop up, framed, or hanging banners.


All of Fisher Textiles’ FR fabric meet the NFPA 701 flame requirements. Several of them pass California Title 19 and German DIN 4102. Products include, for example, GF 6299 FR Poplin and GF 6299 Poplin Black.


Neschen offers a vast list of fabric that passes the NFPA 701. These include products from the company’s Pure Color, SolvoTex, and DirectTex lines.


PCF provides a certificate from the State of California Office of the State Fire Marshall for FR textiles along with a test report for the UBC Classification testing from ASTM International. FR certified fabric can be used for flag, banner, trade show, point of purchase, and arena applications. These include the Deko-Tex 7057FLBS, Heavy Deko-Tex 7095FLBJ, Deco-Structure 7528FLBS, Satinette 6669FLBS, Poly Taffeta 9988FLBS, Jet Flag 6050KFLBS, and 600 Denier 9991FLBE.


Verseidag Seemee’s fabric for interior applications have all passed NFPA 701. This includes the company’s newest products for the dye-sub industry, Poly Light Knit, Poly Heavy Knit, Poly Satin, Poly Stretch, Aqua Sheen, and Aqua Nightdrop.


A FR Future

Not all fabric will be FR in the future. The end use of the application truly dictates whether FR textiles need to be used. For outdoor signage or decoration it isn’t necessary, while indoor usage necessitates flame-repellant substrates at all times.


According to Blaise Humphries, product development/marketing manager, DHJ, “for indoor applications FR fabrics will be increasingly required in all markets. We experienced this in the last ten years since entering the digital print market.”


Government regulations—mostly federal and state—will push for the heightened demand. Unfortunately, as Richardson admits, cost does play a part. Chemical coatings added to a fabric do create a price increase. He foresees FR textiles being application driven in the future because of this.


Regardless, the importance of textiles being either coated or naturally flame repellant is growing—especially in the graphic arts. As more print providers turn to soft signage to create promotional pieces for trade shows, retail, and sporting venues, customers look to them to ensure fire safety is considered. Likewise, those in the décor and fashion industry branching out to digital printing will also find a need for FR fabric.


Advancements in chemical make up continue to strengthen current products and influence manufacturers to develop more durable solutions. As with all facets of our market, evolution occurs based on interest and need.

Click on the link above to get more information on the vendors mentioned in this article.

Jul2010, Digital Output DOFRF810

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