Passive fire protection materials insulate steel structures from the effects of the high temperatures that may be generated in fire.
They can be divided into two types, non-reactive, of which the most common types are boards and sprays, and reactive, of which thin film intumescent coatings are the most common example. Thin film intumescent coatings can be either on-site or off-site applied.
Intumescent coatings are paint like materials which are inert at low temperatures but which provide insulation as a result of a complex chemical reaction at temperatures typically of about 200-250°C. At these temperatures the properties of steel will not be affected. As a result of this reaction they swell and provide an expanded layer of low conductivity char.
Thin film intumescent coating systems generally have three components, a primer, a basecoat (the part which reacts in the fire) and a sealer or top coat.
They are mainly used in buildings where the fire resistance requirements are 30, 60 and 90 minutes. In recent years, a number of products have been developed which can provide 120 minutes fire resistance . They can be applied either on-site or off-site. In general, most on-site application is carried out using water based materials. However, where the structure to which the material is applied is not to have an end use in a dry, heated (C1) environment, solvent based materials are commonly used. Solvent based materials also tend to be able to cover a wider range of section factors than water based materials and can be used on-site to protect smaller sections requiring high thicknesses.
Both solvent based and water based coatings can be used to achieve attractive surface finishes. If a decorative or bespoke finish is required, this should be included in the specification. Thin film intumescents have the added advantages that they can easily cover complex shapes and post-protection service installation is relatively simple.
Typical expansion ratios are about 50:1, i.e. a 1mm thick coating will expand to about 50mm when affected by fire.
Detailed guidance on the specification and installation of site applied, thin film intumescent coatings is available from the Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP).
Boards are used both where the protection system is in full view and where it is hidden. They offer the specifier a clean, boxed appearance and have the additional advantages that application is a dry trade and may not have significant impacts on other activities. Also, boards are factory manufactured and thicknesses can be guaranteed. Furthermore, boards can be applied on unpainted steelwork.
There are broadly two families of board protection, lightweight and heavyweight. Lightweight boards are typically 150-250kg/m³ and are not usually suitable for decorative finishes. They are typically used where aesthetics are not important and are cheaper than heavyweight equivalents. Heavyweight boards are usually in the range 700-950kg/m³ and will generally accept decorative finishes. They are typically used where aesthetics are important.
Both types of board may be used in limited external conditions but the advice of the manufacturer should be sought. Detailed guidance on the installation of board protection systems is available from the Association for Specialist Fire Protection.