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Current Fire Extinguishant Trends in Motorsports

by Howard Hammel, Senior Technical Service Chemist, DuPont Fluoroproducts

 

Why can halon systems no longer be certified, therefore no longer allowed, at the end of 2007, and what will it mean for the motor sports industry?

DuPont™ FE-36™ is one of the primary extinguishing agents used in motor sports because it is safe for use in car garages and pit areas, as well as driver compartments.
At one time, halons were considered extremely effective fire extinguishants in the motor sports industry because they were safer for drivers than the dry chemical extinguishants used previously. Over time, however, scientists determined halons were a potent contributor to ozone depletion. Therefore, halons were phased out of production on December 31, 1993, in accordance with the Montreal Protocol and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean Air Act.

As the racing industry began evaluating the use of alternative systems with low or no ozone depletion potential (ODP), the SFI Foundation, Inc. (SFI), a non-profit organization created to issue and administer standards for specialty/performance automotive and racing equipment, established a new standard, SFI 17.1. This new guideline set the requirements for system design and hardware, as well as for live fire testing scenarios in order to assure the system would suppress a fire. Part of SFI 17.1 requires re-testing every four years or when there are any changes in the hardware to confirm that the systems perform as expected. Rules governing the use of halons (40 CFR Part 82, Subpart H) state that halons cannot be vented during testing or training. This means halon systems that are currently in use cannot be recertified.

As a result, halon systems will not be allowed in all sanctioned auto racing after December 31, 2007, and the motor sports industry will be required to replace all existing halon systems. Many teams have already started installing hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) systems that use DuPont™ FE-36™ clean agent fire extinguishant. DuPont™ FE-36™ is becoming the preferred alternative to halons because it meets the SFI 17.1 standard, has zero ODP, and is safe for use where people are present, such as driver compartments. Once halons are no longer permitted, the environment will benefit from better protection. Fortunately, effective fire extinguishant alternatives are readily available for the racing industry.

 

 

Are non-ozone depleting clean agent fire extinguishants as effective as halons? Are they as safe?

Yes, and they're safer than halons for the environment.

Safety is the primary factor driving the use of fire extinguishants in racing. Extensive testing is performed to ensure extinguishant alternatives meet SFI standards for effectiveness as well as driver safety. Specifically, HFC clean agent fire extinguishants are characterized as being effective fire suppressants for drivers because they do not obscure vision. In addition, they have low toxicity and are non-conductive, non-corrosive, and do not leave residue behind. These properties mitigate potentially costly damage to a car’s sensitive electronic systems, which may be easily corroded by other extinguishing agents. These factors, together with its zero ODP, make HFC clean agent fire extinguishants an excellent source of protection – for people, for assets, and for the environment.

 

 

What are the challenges of replacing existing halon systems? Are the modifications difficult? Are they expensive?

Replacing existing halon systems can be done fairly easily, with few modifications and, therefore, minimal costs. There are, however, certain differences to consider when replacing onboard systems. For example, NASCAR recently modified the design of some cars to position the cylinders, which are slightly larger in new systems, to the driver’s side for safety reasons.

Weight distribution is another factor. An ounce or two may not seem like a significant amount, but it can make a difference in racing, where traction and balance are critical to maintaining speed and control of the car.

 

 

Is the use of non-ozone depleting clean agent extinguishants part of a growing trend within the motor sports industry to become more environmentally conscious?

The racing industry is taking steps to decrease its impact on the environment. One example of an industry-wide shift toward more environmentally acceptable practices is the fact that current regulations prohibit venting halon systems during testing or training. This means that there is no way to determine whether the system would be effective if needed and, as a result, systems in use cannot be recertified. Additional initiatives within the industry include greater use of unleaded gas. This year, race teams will begin using unleaded gas during major NASCAR races. Other racing organizations are also looking to phase in its use. In addition to minimizing pollution, unleaded fuel helps to maximize mileage per gallon, reducing the amount of fuel needed while allowing vehicles to stay on the track longer.

 

 

How does DuPont work with experts in the motor sports industry to determine current needs and to ensure that DuPont Fire Extinguishants are in line with those needs?

DuPont has been a leader in fire protection for more than 35 years, and we work closely with the companies that supply fire suppression systems to the motor sports industry. We also work with SFI to develop new standards and requirements for system design and hardware, as well as for live fire testing scenarios to assure systems are effective in suppressing fires. Based on those standards, fire extinguishant products are certified as suitable for driver cockpits, engine compartments, garages and pits. Once the standards are instituted, racing sanctioning organizations, such as NASCAR and the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) evaluate and adopt them.

DuPont also works with SFI to ensure that extinguishant systems are appropriately maintained. No changes should be made to the system once it is certified (for example, the use of a poor quality replacement nozzle may not meet industry specifications). Systems are continually re-tested to ensure their readiness is maintained.

 

In addition to supplying non-ozone depleting clean agent fire extinguishants, what kind of advocacy or education does DuPont provide to the industry regarding halons and the phaseout?

At DuPont, safety and environmental sustainability are core values, and we seek out opportunities to educate the industry on issues of fire safety where we have a strong foundation of expertise and experience. The DuPont Fire Extinguishants team has delivered presentations to a range of groups in collaboration with fire system manufacturers, the EPA and SFI to discuss regulatory changes and fire safety.

In spring 2006, NASCAR invited DuPont Fire Extinguishants to conduct the driver safety meeting/debrief at the preseason testing session in Daytona to inform the teams about fire system advances and discuss why the change from halons to HFC clean agents is occurring, from both an environmental and safety perspective. DuPont discussed what the new agents do, how they work, and why SFI has chosen to set new standards. The goal of these educational presentations is to help audiences understand the rationale for system changes and to make them aware of new standards.

In addition, DuPont is present at the Performance Racing Institute (PRI) Expo each year to talk with conference attendees and answer any questions they may have in relation to racing and fire safety standards.

We also have more information about fire suppression in motor sports on our Web site: www.cleanagents.dupont.com.

 

 

With the halons phaseout approaching, what should drivers and racing teams understand about the upcoming changes?

Drivers and racing teams need to have a thorough understanding of the regulations that impact fire safety, information on preferred alternatives to halons, and the implications of system design and extinguishant concentration amounts.

Additional information on halon regulations can be obtained from the EPA:
www.epa.gov/ozone/snap/fire/qa.html.

For information on SFI-approved systems for racing, contact:
www.sfifoundation.com.

About the Author

Meet Howard Hammel, Mr. Hammel is a senior technical service chemist in DuPont Fluoroproducts, based in Wilmington, Delaware.

Mr. Hammel joined DuPont in 1968, starting out with four years in the U.S. Air Force. Since then, Mr. Hammel has held supervisory and technical assignments in R&D, manufacturing, new ventures, and marketing support.

Mr. Hammel currently serves on technical advisory committees and working group of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Underwriters Laboratories, International Standards Organization (ISO) for Clean Agent Standards (Systems and Portables), U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Task On Halon Options, and the International Aircraft Systems Fire Protection Working Group.