A common denominator linking manufacturers of reliable, trustworthy, quality-controlled construction products is independent third-party testing. Before taking their products to market, these manufacturers invest in the help of independent third party laboratories, such as fire protection testing specialist Exova Warringtonfire, to negotiate a complex labyrinth of research, development, assessments and testing.
One such manufacturer is Plumis, the James Dyson Award-winning inventors of the Automist active fire protection concept and manufacturers of a small range of innovative products that propelled them to be named Innovators of the Year by the CBI in 2014.
Their latest product, the Automist Smartscan, is an elegantly engineered, water-saving, efficient, affordable and highly effective watermist system (sprinkler replacement). It uses an under-researched technology – water mist – in a new way to provide active fire protection in the home. Such is the innovation of the product’s design, it has already gained international recognition with an award for the best “interior design elements” product in the renowned Red Dot Design Awards 2016.
The story of how Exova Warringtonfire collaborated to test the Smartscan to be accepted in the UK market is a parable of persistence, commitment and belief in marginal gains.
Passionate about their product, Plumis understood their responsibility to ensure that it worked and met all the relevant product standards. And after all, compliance with recognised standards is what their market looks for, especially the approving bodies.
They rapidly discovered, however, that the Smartscan falls outside the prescriptive scope of the then draft but now published BS 8458:2015 Fixed fire protection systems. Residential and domestic watermist systems. Code of practice for design and installation.
Alarmingly, they had no standard to comply with. There are water mist standards that come close in other sectors and for other applications, and of course there are generic fire tests of various kinds, but no product standard for their particular specification. Although they could still test the Smartscan to BS 8458’s performance standards, they could never claim that it complied. Theirs was an orphan product.
While this in no way damped their commitment to safety, fitness for purpose, or quality, it did make life awkward.
The residential specifier market in the UK – the people they want to buy the product – is diverse. The volume housebuilders are more demanding than private domestic homeowners, but with appropriate marketing the lack of a standard to comply with is not an insurmountable obstacle.
On the other hand, the people who would allow the product to be used – building control officers, fire officers and local authority inspectors – are just as important to commercial success but trickier to persuade. They are the gatekeepers to wide-scale acceptance.
For them, approval is loaded with the deadweight of liability, particularly for life-critical products like the Smartscan. By whipping the safety net of compliance out from under their feet they are left with no convenient shortcut to unburdening this liability.
This was a concern for Plumis, and set them on a heroic, comprehensive programme of testing with Exova Warringtonfire that, with no irony intended, sets new standards for orphan products.
What Is It?
Their Automist Smartscan product is an active fire suppression system, a reliable replacement to a water sprinkler. The concept uses water mist – an increasingly popular, highly effective fire suppressant in many circumstances – to either extinguish fires or suppress them long enough to allow people to escape safely and firefighters to attend.
Water mist has a large surface area and so quells the heat produced in a fire more efficiently than sprinkled water. As it reaches the seat of the fire, it starves it of oxygen. By keeping the ambient temperature comparatively low, it prevents or delays flashovers.
Its USP and appeal
Powered by an isolated electrical circuit, the Smartscan comprises a natty high-pressure pump and, uniquely for a water mist system, a single wall-mounted, swivelling misting nozzle. This nozzle is fitted with an automatic infrared heat detector that targets the source of a fire reliably and very accurately, limiting water damage – a major attraction for owners, occupants and insurers alike.
Wall-mounting instead of ceiling-mounting is no fanciful whim either. Shooting water mist sideways avoids the super-hot evaporative upper layers under the ceiling, allowing mist to reach the seat of the fire sooner.
Unlike sprinklers or conventional water mist systems, it uses less water, requires less supporting infrastructure and is thus more easily retrofitted.
While suitable for all residential newbuild or refurbishment projects under ten storeys, the Smartscan comes into its own during domestic retrofit. In particular, it allows you to overcome the constraints imposed by the Building Regulations when converting a loft. The consequence of going into the loft above first floor level is that you need to preserve a protected escape route out of the house, compromising aspirations for open-plan layouts on the ground floor.
Before the Smartscan (and Plumis’s LABC-approved multi-nozzle product, also in the Automist range), design options in this common scenario were limited. You either had to retrofit a ceiling-mounted sprinkler system at vast expense and much disruption, devise a validated fire engineering solution (again at considerable expense), or build the protected escape route separating the stairs and corridor to the outside from the rest of the ground floor.
Now, though, the Smartscan offers a fourth way. Orders of magnitude more affordable in certain situations, installing it into an existing house or other residential settings is straightforward. Better still, it stops people being tempted by the dummy wall solution, improving fire safety generally.
The benefits of the Smartscan are apparently numerous and self-evident. At least, that was Plumis’s hope. Like all responsible manufacturers facing a stiff regulatory landscape in their target market geographies, to be taken seriously Plumis needed independent verification of their claims and third-party testing. Only then could they hope to evolve to wide-spread acceptance from the approving authorities and specifiers.
The route to market
They naturally turned to Exova Warringtonfire as the reputable partner in their product development, and the two companies worked together to create a dedicated water mist testing facility in an existing concrete block-lined spray-room. This is now a permanent facility open to all manufacturers.
From an initial programme of eight test sessions, it quickly became apparent that more was needed to plug the confidence gap. Much more. Indeed, Plumis are now into their 80th round and counting. What’s more, Exova Warrintonfire is now very experienced at testing to BS 8458.
The development of the Smartscan was no ordinary road. It received seed money worth £160K from the Technology Strategy Board (now called InnovateUK) to type-approve it with the objective of making it as good as or better than a sprinkler system.
Early fixed-head prototypes were developed with the help of computational fluid dynamics modelling by the University of Greenwich’s Fire Safety Engineering Group. It became apparent that to maximize its reach, the water mist would have to be sprayed in an axehead blade.
The most obvious orientation, a fixed wall-mounted horizontal blade, wasn’t working well enough in standard tests conducted by Exova Warringtonfire. Although it was good at avoiding evaporative losses and thus reaching the seat of the fire more quickly, it was still outperformed by sprinklers. Plumis were advised that the problem was that not enough water mist was reaching the target.
With countless trial-and-error iterations under their belt, the penny finally dropped. To deluge the fire appropriately, the axehead blade should be vertically oriented. This was a eureka moment, proving that it was possible to match the performance of water sprinklers – but only up to a point. (See pic 2 and graph 1 below)
A vertical blade would work on fires that happened to be in the path of the spray, sure, but what about fires slightly to one side?
Although this was another challenge for Plumis, the vertical orientation breakthrough held enough promise to push them on to further testing at Exova Warringtonfire. A smart move, as it turned out.
The solution was staring them in the face. The misting nozzle would have to be able to detect the source of the heat and then swivel accurately and reliably to target the fire before activation. (See Pic 3 below) This is harder than it sounds. Early prototypes of the infrared sensor were confused by hotspots away from the seat of the fire.
A good many months and many tests on and with countless prototypes consigned to the scrapheap, the Automist Smartscan was born. Thanks to Exova Warringtonfire’s third-party testing regime, the infrared heat detector mounted on the nozzle head proved a suitable sprinkler replacement, more than matching the performance standards set out in BS 8458. (See results graphs 2- 4 below)
Aware of the need for evidence, Plumis have pushed the Smartscan’s limits beyond the bare minimum, challenging it in many additional tests to suppress or extinguish fires in any position (even difficult fires obscured or hidden by furniture) and in a variety of draught conditions.
Demonstration tests have convincingly proved its worth time and time again. It has even travelled to the USA, where the UL 1926/2167 listing process is being kicked off and where it favourably impressed fire risk authorities in initial testing.
Active fire safety systems are and will always be a ‘reluctance purchase’ for specifiers. Approving authorities will rightly regard innovative systems, i.e. ones that cannot comply with a product standard, with suspicion, too, preferring to err on the side of caution where life safety is at stake.
In spite of that, Plumis collaborated triumphantly with Exova Warringtonfire to overcome these barriers. With measured belief in their concept, enormous persistence, and, critically, the wisdom, knowledge and help of independent third-party testing, they have amassed an undeniable independent weight of evidence that it works. It proves that great ideas will win through. The Smartscan was launched in February 2016, and Exova Warringtonfire is now one of the most experienced water mist testers in the UK.
For more information, go to www.exovabmtrada.com/en-gb/testing