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Safer Solvent Storage

Thursday, July 1, 1999 - 00:00
ABRN: Safer Solvent Storage

If you've ever seen a body shop burn, you'll understand the need for ...

Safer Solvent Storage

July 1999

Have you ever seen a body shop after a fire had its way with the building? Concrete and steel structures are reduced to skeletons of sagging I-beams and puddles of aluminum where air tools once lay on the floor. When a fire starts and the flame reaches the solvents, look out.

The best thing to do when a fire breaks out in a body shop is get out of the building. Fast. However, the better course is to never have a fire in the first place. Obviously the biggest fire threats in the shop are your solvents and paints. In an environment in which volatile solvents are being sprayed on one end, and steel is being cut and arc welded at the other, the potential for the two to meet is real. Needless to say, once started, body shop fires spread fast.

Arson investigations have shown that solvent-accelerated fires are usually violent, but under certain circumstances they are short-lived. If one were to ignite a building with a quantity of flammable liquid, the growth dynamics of the fire would be intense. Depending on ambient temperatures and the elapsed time during the spread of the fuel, there is a proportionate flash of flame when the fuel/air mixture ignites. However, the fire can be limited by lack of oxygen. A 1,500-sq.-ft. room has only enough air to allow complete combustion of roughly 10 gallons of flammable liquid. If the air supply is limited and the oxygen is used up more quickly that it can be replaced, the fire rate slows and in some cases stops completely.

In a fire accelerated by solvents, the exhaust gases from the combustion are produced so quickly that they may overwhelm the available ventilation. The blast of gases causes pressures with enough force to shatter windows, move walls and even raise roofs. Obviously, the risks to personnel in these situations are substantial. This is why it is essential to store combustibles in approved, sturdy steel cabinets such as those pictured in this article. Eventually, however, all flammable materials will reach ignition temperatures if combustion is sustained. In such events, isolating your stored solvents from the heat and ignition source becomes crucial.

Accelerant fires tend to be localized and spread according to the porosity of the flooring or substrate upon which the fuel is spread. Carpets and wood floors in homes wick up the accelerants, thus prolonging the fire. But a sealed epoxy-painted concrete floor will allow it to spread and feed flames faster. As the ignited fuel/air mixture spreads quickly and turbulently throughout the room, the fire can scorch all exposed surfaces and melt some low-temperature plastics, such as polyethylene. Investigators have found that accelerated fires immediately burn all the cellulose-based articles, such as wall calendar pages and office documents. After the initial ignition the accelerant fuel burns in an extremely hot pool fire, but can be overwhelmed by the ignition of secondary fuel sources, such as your customers' cars.

As the building becomes--as firefighters say--"involved" in flames, the presence of toxic vapors from the plastics used in auto interiors, office furniture, and body materials becomes a factor. These items can burn at even higher temperatures than solvents. Temperatures above urethane materials--such as a mattress--have been measured a t 1,000-2,000

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