Change is in the air

FM Global testing is changing the way aerosol products are sold in the US

Large-scale fire testing recently conducted at the FM Global Research Campus could change the way aerosol products are packaged in the United States.

Soon you may be able to buy aerosol bug spray, sun screen and a host of other aerosol products in plastic bottles, which are currently prohibited under U.S. law.

For several years, the industry has been interested in developing plastic aerosol product technology, but there has been little information available on how to protect the commodity. The large-scale fire testing was conducted to establish specific fire protection guidelines for plastic aerosols containing a flammable propellant and an ignitable liquid.

These guidelines will be incorporated into FM Global's loss prevention standards and have been presented for inclusion in U.S. and other fire codes. The adoption into the fire codes is the first step toward storing aerosols in plastics bottles and would open a whole new world for manufactures of consumer aerosol products in the U.S.

Consumer products a few years away
"It's probably one or two years down the road before you see aerosols in plastic in stores," explains Jim Bloome, engineering consultant to R.A. Jones & Co., and a member of the Plastic Aerosol Research Group (PARG), which is spearheading the industry initiative. "Manufacturers will need to do some long-term testing on containers and valves, but changing the fire code is the first step. Without the change, manufacturers can't even start."

Plastic containers offer several benefits over metal. They don't rust, can be molded into various shapes and sizes, are lighter and cost less. With plastics, there is also less damage due to denting, and, they offer a way to store products that contain chemicals that would react with metal.

Research began in 2011
FM Global has a long history of working with trade groups, industry organizations and fire protection organizations to advance fire safety knowledge and influence codes and standards worldwide.

FM Global has been working with PARG since 2011 to understand the hazards of aerosols stored in plastic containers. That early research has led to changes in the bottling of nonignitable liquids like air fresheners, shaving gel and whipped cream. Prior to that research, federal regulations required that all aerosol products sold in the U.S. be in metal containers.

Plastic aerosol fire protection standard established
The most recent work establishes a fire protection standard for aerosols stored in plastic containers. The findings have been presented to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) for inclusion in the organization's NFPA 30B standard. The new standard is scheduled for release in October 2018.

"Fire protection guidance on aerosols is based on tests done in the 1970s and 80s," explains John LeBlanc, staff vice president and principal standards engineer at FM Global. "That testing was done exclusively on steel and tinplate bottles. But plastic containers behave much differently than metal, so none of that research is applicable."

In fact, the first phase of the project was to develop a test formula. FM Global conducted single-can testing on 19 different product formulations. Researchers finally settled on a formula that represented a wide variety of ignitable liquids and flammable propellants that could be stored in plastic bottles in the future.

54,000 bottles tested
FM Global then worked with PARG to get 54,000 bottles manufactured for the large-scale test, and even needed a special permit from the U.S. Department of Transportation to ship the product to its test facility in West Glocester, Rhode Island, USA.

The large-scale fire test, conducted in October 2017, provided valuable information about how plastic aerosol bottles differ from metal containers. It also showed how they fail when exposed to heat, and the best way to store and protect them.

High-energy events
Generally, plastic bottles are less resistant to thermal exposure than metal aerosol containers. Bottle failure occurred quicker and more frequently than with metal bottles, and each failure created a fireball that contributed to the fire.

"Each bottle failure was a high-energy release event," explains Seth Sienkiewicz, assistant vice president and senior lead research engineer at FM Global. "With most fire testing on solid commodities, the fire grows vertically. But these fireballs shot across the aisle and operated sprinklers in adjacent rows. It was certainly unexpected, but it gave us an understanding of the dynamics and what is needed for fire protection."

Ceiling-only sprinklers insufficient
The testing showed that using only ceiling sprinklers was insufficient to control a fire involving plastic aerosols. The recommendation made to NFPA is for these aerosols to be protected using Design Scheme A, which calls for in-rack sprinklers and vertical barriers.

"Plastic aerosols turned out to be a little more hazardous than we originally anticipated," Bloome explains.

While the test showed more volatility, it also provided a solution for storing and protecting plastic aerosols. If the recommendation is accepted by NFPA in October, it should allow the evolution of aerosol packaging in the United States to continue.

"I have two cans of shaving cream in my medicine cabinet, one metal and one plastic," Sienkiewicz adds. "It's kind of cool having an example of the transition right in front of me every morning. And it came from the work we did in 2011."


Aerosols At a Glance

  • Since 2011, FM Global has worked with the Plastic Aerosol Research Group to understand the hazard of aerosol products stored in plastic bottles.
  • FM Global researchers conducted fire tests in October 2017 to develop fire protection recommendations for plastic-stored aerosols.
  • The research was done to support changes in the U.S. fire code.
  • If the changes are adopted by the National Fire Protection Association, manufactures can begin developing plastic bottles for aerosols.
  • Consumers products could reach U.S. stores in one to two years.

Learn more about FM Global's Research & Testing